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Fires, floods have New Mexico reeling from multiple disasters


People in New Mexico are reeling from multiple disasters. A deadly wildfire remains uncontained in the south, while up north, mudslides have created a drinking water crisis in another city. It's been climate whiplash - fire, then a lot of rain, then debris flows and dangerous flooding, with more heavy rain on the way. NPR's Kirk Siegler joins us from New Mexico to tell us more. Hey, Kirk.


DETROW: So first, what's the latest on the wildfire?

SIEGLER: Well, it's actually two wildfires side by side, and one nearly consumed the village of Ruidoso. It's a big tourist area in the mountains of southern New Mexico. As of today, crews are reporting they're getting close to three-quarters containment on the fire, and it's really not burning anymore due to all the rain, as you said, that's been hitting here. So they're kind of just in the interior, mopping up hot spots.

There's also a lot of pressure to reopen the village because this is the height of the tourist season. Particularly, you have a lot of Texans coming over here to escape the heat, but that's not an easy thing to do. You know, some 1,300 homes burned. There've been power outages. You've had whole neighborhoods destroyed. And those rains wreaked more havoc, causing flooding and mudslides. And there are still flash flood watches in effect last I checked.

DETROW: And there's other flooding elsewhere in New Mexico. Tell us about that.

SIEGLER: Yeah. So I'm actually in Las Vegas, N.M. It's a couple hundred miles to the north of Ruidoso. About 13,000 people live here, and this city is perilously close to running out of water. Downpours triggered mudslides of toxic debris running off a two-year-old wildfire burn scar, Scott, and into the town's water supply. They're saying there may not be drinking water in another day or so.


SIEGLER: So all businesses, except grocery stores and a couple of gas stations, have been ordered to close, and there are long lines at water and sandbag distribution sites. To my left, I can see a long line of dozens of idling cars - looks like they just started moving. Now, people are worried about flooding knocking out their homes. I talked to Marcella Sanchez (ph). She'd been waiting for more than an hour for sandbags to protect her home. Let's listen to her.

MARCELLA SANCHEZ: We have a high wall, but - good thing - in certain areas. But the other land, by the arroyo, the ditch, the neighbors - all their stuff came. And I don't know what's involved 'cause it collects junk.

SIEGLER: Now, Scott, there's so much demand in New Mexico right now that people here are only getting 20 sandbags a day, which really doesn't do that much. And Sanchez told me it's a fiasco here.

DETROW: So what's being done to help?

SIEGLER: Well, there are now disaster declarations in multiple counties in northern and southern New Mexico, so that's big. FEMA is now on the ground in Ruidoso, where that big fire is still not out, of course. And there's - the agency is starting to send more water here to Las Vegas. The National Guard just told me that they're open for eight hours today. And they're not turning anyone away like in previous days, when they were relying on donated water, now that FEMA has arrived.

And, you know, there's a lot of pressure on the feds to help get that water treatment plant here fully operational. But I have to say, Scott, you know, there's not a lot of faith in FEMA here. This is the site of that wildfire two years ago. It was the largest in New Mexico history, and despite a federal law being passed that guarantees FEMA aid, a lot of survivors here in town that I've been talking to say they haven't really seen much, if any, and some have just totally given up on the federal government.

DETROW: Yeah. Yeah. Looking forward, what's the weather outlook? Could it help or hurt?

SIEGLER: Probably hurt. It's a matter of whether or not they're going to be prepared in time. The National Weather Service has issued flash flood watches here in Las Vegas and down in southern New Mexico until midnight tonight. The National Guard just told me they're expecting more storms this weekend. So, you know, it really just depends where the storms hit and how much rain falls, but I can tell you it's a very stressful situation still here in Las Vegas, anyway. All of the Fourth of July festivities have been canceled, so that's a pretty big bummer in town.

DETROW: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler in Las Vegas, N.M. Thanks so much.

SIEGLER: You're welcome.


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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.