UPDATE JUNE 12: Lots of progress yesterday and last night as weather (high winds) cooperated. The fire went from 0 to 30 percent contained, but firefighters warned it is still a very active dangerous fire. A direct line now surrounds Ski Apache.
What began as a small wildfire in rugged terrain just north of Ski Apache in southern New Mexico, mushroomed over the weekend into a wind-propelled blaze that threatened not only the ski area, but the popular resort community of Ruidoso.
The fire, apparently touched off by lightening, had consumed more than 34,000 acres as of Monday morning (June 11, 2012) and had been at less than 10,000 acres Friday afternoon. An estimated 35 structures have been destroyed, and hundreds have been evacuated, with several parts of the community on pre-evacuation alert.
Ski Apache, a 50-year-old ski area owned by the Mescalero Apaches, is about 16 miles from the town via Ski Run Road, a steep, 12-mile access road that has been closed. There have been no official statements and Ski Apache’s phone is answered with a taped message that the ski area is closed and refers callers to its website where there has been no updating.
Firefighters are trying to keep the flames from the ski area, according to local reports that also noted snowmaking guns have been used to wet down the slopes.
The fire caused phone lines and Internet service to go down for much of the day Saturday, hampering the state and local agencies efforts to get resources in place. Ruidoso was crowded over the weekend with visitors. It is home to Ruidoso Downs, one of the nation’s most important quarter-horse race tracks.
Hundreds of Ruidoso area residents and visitors, including evacuees, were called to a meeting in the high school gym Sunday night for updates.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez received sustained applause when she told the anxious audience she said “The state has committed any or all its resources here," she said. "I know this is an anxious time and you want to know if your homes are devastated," Gov. Martinez said. "We have experts coming from all over the country to help us. Be prepared to leave. Don't put someone else's life at risk."
The governor isn’t going anywhere, however: "I'm not leaving this place,” she said to more applause.
Firefighters said they are hopeful that a break in the weekend’s heavy winds Monday, even if short-lived, will help them make progress. The fire is zero percent contained, but Carl Schwope, with the Fire Command team, said “that doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made.”
There are major priorities in place to keep the fire from spreading into the Upper Canyon region of Ruidoso – one way in, one way out – a corridor of summer cabins. That narrow corridor leads directly into the resort village.
Erica Enjady, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in nearby Mescalero, told the Ruidoso News that “the fire has created a great deal of concern” as Ski Apache is a “big part of the local economy.”
Ski Apache’s peak gazebo is at 11,500 feet, while the top of Sierra Blanca that towers over Ruidoso is more than 12,000 feet. There are 750 skiable acres, 55 runs and trails and 11 lifts, with New Mexico’s only passenger gondola to the top.
SnoCountry.com will update this story as news warrants.
Photo: Thick smoke from the Little Bear fire blocks out the late afternoon sun in Ruidoso Sunday. (Rudy Gutierrez / El Paso Times)