FBI offers reward for information about deadly southern New Mexico wildfires

Jun 22, 2024, 11:56 AM | Updated: Jun 23, 2024, 8:48 am

RUIDOSO, N.M. (AP) — Federal authorities offered a reward for information about those responsible for igniting a pair of New Mexico wildfires that killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes in the past week.

The FBI on Saturday offered up to $10,000 for information in connection with the South Fork Fire and Salt Fire in southern New Mexico, which forced thousands to flee.

An agency statement said it was seeking public assistance in identifying the cause of the fires near Ruidoso, New Mexico, that were discovered June 17. The notice also pointedly suggested human hands were to blame, saying the reward was for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the person or persons responsible for starting the fires.”

The South Fork Fire, which reached 26 square miles (67 square kilometers), was 26% contained on Saturday. The Salt Fire, at 12 square miles (31 square kilometers), was 7% contained as of Saturday morning, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Full containment was not expected until July 15.

Recent rains and cooler weather have assisted more than 1,000 firefighters working to contain the fires. Fire crews on Saturday took advantage of temperatures in the 70s Fahrenheit (21 to 26 Celsius), scattered showers and light winds to use bulldozers to dig protective lines. Hand crews used shovels in more rugged terrain to battle the fires near the mountain village of Ruidoso.

Elsewhere in New Mexico, heavy rain and flash flood warnings prompted officials to order some mandatory evacuations Friday in the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico; and communities near Albuquerque, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Ruidoso. Las Vegas set up shelters for displaced residents, and some evacuation orders remained in place there on Saturday.

Flash flood warnings were canceled Saturday, though the National Weather Service said afternoon storms could produce excessive runoff and more flooding in the area.

The wildfires have destroyed or damaged an estimated 1,400 structures. Other fallout from the fires, including downed power lines, damaged water, sewer and gas lines, flooding in burn scars, continued “to pose risks to firefighters and the public,” according to a Saturday update from the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

Evacuations in areas near Ruidoso and road closures were still in effect. In Ruidoso, full-time residents will be allowed to return Monday, though everyday life won’t return to normal.

“You’re going to need to bring a week’s worth of food, you’re going to need to bring drinking water,” Mayor Lynn Crawford said on Facebook.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico on Thursday, freeing up funding and more resources to help with recovery efforts including temporary housing, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property and other emergency work in Lincoln County and on lands belonging to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, met with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Crawford and Mescalero Apache President Thora Walsh Padilla on Saturday. “These communities have our support for as long as it takes to recover,” Criswell posted on the social media platform X.

Much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot in recent months. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped the flames out of control, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into Ruidoso in a matter of hours. Evacuations extended to hundreds of homes, businesses, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.

Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,344 square miles (8,660 square kilometers) this year, a figure higher than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

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FBI offers reward for information about deadly southern New Mexico wildfires