Wildfires turn deadly in New Mexico as firefighters also work to contain California blazes

More than 1,400 structures have been destroyed in New Mexico.

June 19, 2024, 10:25 PM

An early start to the U.S. wildfire season remained in full swing Wednesday in the West as blazes in New Mexico turned deadly and prompted a state of emergency. At the same time, California firefighters were juggling challenges from five major fires burning at both ends of the state.

Firefighters in New Mexico were simultaneously battling two massive wildfires that broke out Monday in the same general area. The fires spread to more than 23,400 acres by Wednesday morning, killing two people, destroying more than 1,400 homes and other structures and causing more than 8,000 people to evacuate, according to officials.

New Mexico State Police reported Wednesday that an individual was found dead in a vehicle incinerated in the South Fork Fire in Ruidoso, Lincoln County.

Officials said they were unable to immediately identify the deceased due to their remains being skeletal.

"No legible identification documents were located in the burned vehicle," according to police.

The second fatality occurred near the Swiss Chalet Motel in Ruidoso, officials said.

Patrick Pearson, 60, died after sustaining numerous burns from the South Fork Fire, where he succumbed to his injuries, according to police.

Fire officials said there was 0% containment Wednesday on the South Fork Fire and the Salt Fire, which are burning parallel to each other on Mescalero Tribal land and U.S. Forest Service land near the mountain village of Ruidoso, about 75 miles west of Roswell.

Smoke from a wildfire partially blocks the sun in the village of Ruidoso, N.M., June 18, 2024.
Andres Leighton/AP

Residents of the village of Ruidoso, which has a population of more than 7,800, were ordered to evacuate.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency for the area Tuesday and her office confirmed that one person had been killed in the fire. The circumstances of the death were not disclosed.

Smoke from a wildfire rises over trees in Ruidoso, N.M., June 17, 2024.
Jacquie Escajeda via AP

In California, firefighters were getting the upper hand on multiple major wildfires burning across California.

One of the biggest fires in California is the Sites Fire, which ignited around 2:30 p.m. PT Monday in Colusa County, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Fueled by tall dry vegetation and fanned by wind gusts of up to 20 mph, the fire had spread to 15,565 acres on Wednesday, triggering numerous evacuations, according to Cal Fire.

The Sites Fire in Northern California's Colusa County, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, was 5% contained Wednesday. A red flag warning signaling high fire danger was already issued for the area when the fire started, officials said.

A cause for the fire was under investigation.

The Aero Fire in Calaveras County, in the Sierra foothills about 40 miles east of Stockton, started about 3:30 p.m. PT Monday and had grown to 5,425 acres by Wednesday, according to Cal Fire. The blaze is threatening nearly 3,700 structures, according to Cal Fire. At least three structures were destroyed and another was damaged by the wildfire, which was 33% contained on Wednesday, officials said.

The Calaveras County Sheriff's Office issued several evacuation orders for residents living in the fire zone. A shelter for people and their livestock was opened at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds Livestock Evacuation Center in nearby Angels Camp, and another shelter was opened at a veterans hall in Valley Springs, officials said.

PHOTO: California Wildfires
Firefighter Chris Fritz works to keep the Aero Fire from spreading through the Copperopolis community of Calaveras County, Calif., on Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Noah Berger/AP

The Aero Fire is burning through dry grass and woodlands in an area that has not experienced a large fire since 2003, Cal Fire said.

An investigation into the cause of the blaze is underway.

The Sites and Aero fires ignited as firefighters were gaining control of the Point Fire in Sonoma County near the Wine Country towns of Healdsburg and Geyserville. As of Wednesday morning the Point Fire, which started Sunday afternoon, had burned more than 1,200 acres and was 50% contained, according to Cal Fire.

The Point Fire destroyed two structures and a firefighter was injured battling the blaze, Cal Fire said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

An air tanker drops retardant while battling the Aero Fire in the Copperopolis community of Calaveras County, Calif., June 17, 2024.
Noah Berger/AP

In Southern California, firefighters were making significant progress battling two major blazes in the Los Angeles area.

The largest Southern California fire, the Post Fire, erupted on Saturday afternoon near Gorman, in the Tejon Pass area about 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

As of Wednesday evening, the Post Fire was 43% contained and firefighters were holding the spread to 15,690 acres, per the Los Padres National Forrest.

Fire crews continue to secure lines and mop up in steep, hard-to-reach backcountry. Twenty-person hand crews are segmenting into short squads and being inserted by way of helicopter and boat shuttles. The Post Fire prompted the evacuations of 1,200 campers at the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area and forced the closure of Lake Pyramid, according to Cal Fire.

Vehicles sit burnt from the "Post Fire" in Gorman, Calif., June 17, 2024.
David Swanson/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, firefighters gained the upper hand on the Hesperia Fire, which also started on Saturday evening in San Bernardino County, triggering an evacuation warning for local residents. According to Cal Fire, the blaze, which burned 1,078 acres, was 91% contained on Wednesday.

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