224 homes destroyed in NM wildfire

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Hundreds of evacuees in southern New Mexico on Wednesday still weren't sure whether their homes were among the 224 destroyed by a wildfire near the town of Ruidoso.

Fire officials broke the news to evacuees Tuesday night, but emphasized that while crews had surveyed the destroyed properties they had no exact locations to share just yet.

The 36,000-acre wildfire also destroyed 10 other structures. Earlier, just 35 homes and structures were thought to have been burned.

Heaps of burned metal and other debris were found at home sites hit hardest by the Little Bear Fire, which was 35 percent contained.

"It's truly heartbreaking to see the damage done to this beautiful part of the country," New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said after touring the area Tuesday.

Smoke billows from the Little Bear fire in southeastern New Mexico near Ruidoso, Saturday, June 9, 2012. Spanning only a few acres on Wednesday, the Little Bear fire began to grow Friday as spot fires formed outside established fire lines due to windy conditions. By Saturday morning, about 10,000 acres had been charred northwest of the mountain community of Ruidoso. (AP Photo/Roswell Daily Record, Mark Wilson)Mark Wilson / Roswell Daily Record

With at least 19 large fires burning in nine states, President Barack Obama called Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to assure him that the federal government stood ready to provide personnel, equipment and emergency grants for Colorado and other states battling fire. Obama also tried to reach Martinez, but her office said poor reception in the fire zone kept the two from connecting.

The 68-square-mile High Park Fire in Colorado shrouded downtown Denver, some 60 miles south, in a smoky haze early Tuesday. The smoke temporarily grounded the air attack on the fire, but helicopters and tanker planes took to the skies by midday.

The fire was 10 percent contained Tuesday. One person has died and 118 structures have been destroyed or damaged.

Larimer County authorities allowed some residents to return home but issued 25 more evacuation notices near the west side of the fire because of limited escape routes. Among those affected by the new evacuations were up to 100 people at a camp, plus Colorado State University's mountain campus at Pingree Park.

The wildfires in the drought-stricken West have tested federal resources.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced late Monday the agency was contracting eight heavy air tankers to increase the aging national fleet to 17.

Across the West:

  • California: A wildfire that briefly threatened homes in Kern County was fully contained.
  • Colorado: The 68-square-mile High Park Fire is 10 percent contained. More than 600 people are assigned to the fire.
  • New Mexico: Nearly 1,000 firefighters and more than 200 National Guardsmen are battling the 56-square-mile Little Bear fire. Containment is 35 percent. More than 500 firefighters bolstered lines around the Gila fire, the country's largest at 438 square miles.
  • Utah: Two wildfires blackened 4,000 acres in Fishlake National Forest in southern Utah. A third fire believed to have been sparked by target shooting near Centerville, 15 miles north of Salt Lake City, was quickly contained late Monday.
  • Wyoming: A 4-square-mile blaze at Guernsey State Park is 80 percent contained. Six helicopters and 600 firefighters are deployed. Firefighters contained 95 percent of a 13-square-mile fire in Medicine Bow National Forest and completely contained a 1,700-acre fire in Weston County.
  • Arizona: A wildfire has charred nearly 2,700 acres but is now 40 percent contained; it began Sunday in the Tonto National Forest northwest of Phoenix. In northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation, a wildfire has burned about 600 acres.