A wind-driven fire burning across New Mexico is believed to have killed two people, after the remains of a couple were found near their charred home.
Police investigators and firefighters found the elderly couple’s remains on Wednesday afternoon after family members notified police that the two had tried to evacuate but were unaccounted for.
The wildfire has prompted eviction orders for as many as 4,500 people, and destroyed more than 200 residences on the edge of a mountain community in the southern part of the state.
Kerry Gladden, a spokesperson for the Ruidoso police, said that fire crews are hoping to take advantage of a break in the relentless winds to make headway against the deadly blaze.
The couple’s remains were found near the house but not in it, and no additional information was immediately available, Gladden said. Authorities were working to confirm the identities of the two people.
The fire moved into a more densely populated area on Ruidoso’s north-eastern side on Wednesday afternoon, prompting more evacuations. Laura Rabon, a spokesperson for the Lincoln national forest, interrupted a fire briefing and told people to get in their cars and leave after the flames jumped a road where crews were trying to hold the line.
Overnight, crews kept the flames from pushing further into the village, Rabon said.
The fire has torched about 9 sq miles (23 sq km) of forest and grass, and the strong winds that battered the area have left behind toppled trees and downed power lines. Crews continued to work on Thursday to restore power to parts of the village that have been without it since Monday.
While the cause of the blaze was under investigation, fire officials and forecasters warned that persistent dry and windy conditions had prompted another day of red flag warnings for the eastern third of New Mexico and other parts of the southwest.
Incident commander Dave Bales said the strategy was “attack while we can”, noting that winds were expected to pick up Thursday afternoon and again Friday.
“We’re trying to keep this fire as small as possible, especially because it’s right in the community,” he said. “We’ve had a loss of a lot of structures so our crews are right there on the fire front going as direct as possible.”
Six new large fires were reported Wednesday: three in Texas, two in Colorado and one in Oklahoma. In all, wildland firefighters and support personnel were trying to contain 11 large fires that have charred more than 40 square miles (103 square kilometers) in five states.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Thursday that since the start of the year, 18,550 wildfires have burned about 1,250 sq miles. That’s well above the 10-year average of 12,290 wildfires and 835 sq miles burned.
Hotter and drier weather coupled with decades of fire suppression have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. The problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year western megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, wildfires were burning northwest of Ruidoso, along the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque, in mountains northwest of the Las Vegas community and in grasslands along the Pecos River near the town of Roswell.