The Ruidoso, New Mexico area is no stranger to wildland fires, and since officials began recording fire events more than a century ago, dozens of fires have threatened this mountain community. Understanding historical trends in wildland fire behavior is a critical part of how we plan to live within the wildland urban interface, and we hope this article helps to illustrate how the resilience of the citizens of Lincoln County and changes in forest management over the years have protected the community.
Less than two weeks ago, strong winds with gusts up to 90 mph toppled power lines in Ruidoso. The sparks ignited the drought-stricken landscape, and the winds quickly whipped the blaze into a 5,000-acre wildfire, destroying hundreds of homes and prompting numerous evacuations. We decided to map the progress of the blaze, called the McBride fire, and posted it on social media to help illustrate the situation. The community response was much bigger than we expected, and we started getting a lot of questions about older fires and how the McBride fire stacked up. We responded by doing some research into the history of wildland fires in Lincoln County and creating a map of all the known wildland fires that have threatened Ruidoso since records began over 100 years ago.
In the early days of fire management, record-keeping was far less detailed than it is today. Tracking down accurate maps, fire names, dates and acreage burned is difficult, and sometimes impossible for the earliest recorded fires. But as wildland fire management evolved, so did the tools and methods used to record them. Today wildland fires can be tracked and recorded with remote detection systems such as airplanes and satellites, making it possible to rapidly and very precisely map a fire's movements and the infrastructure they threaten.
In the map above, a number of patterns start to emerge. Foremosts, it's very clear that wildland fires have gotten significantly larger and more frequent in recent decades. It's also clear which areas have been burned numerous times. Perhaps most interestingly, nearly all of the fires are elongated toward the northeast. This directional pattern can be largely linked to the winds which drive wildland fires. The prevailing winds in the Ruidoso area are from the west for almost 9 months out of the year (September through June), and from the south for more than three months out of the year (June through September). This means that a fire sparked in the area will be pushed east and north virtually any time of the year. What does this tell us about the threat of wildland fires to Ruidoso? In short: any fires that start on the south and west side of the community will generally be of vastly greater threat than those on the east and north side, given the likely direction of the winds. Decision-makers and community members in the Ruidoso area can use this map, and the history and patterns it unveils, to better prepare themselves for the inevitability of more and larger fires in the years to come.
We originally published this map online for free in order to raise awareness and to answer questions the community had for us regarding the history of wildfires in the Ruidoso area. So many people have asked if there was a way to buy prints that we are also now offering high resolution poster which you can order here. Below are brief descriptions of the major wildland fires shown on the map above.
Cedar Creek Fire 1939
The Cedar Creek Fire started in June near the boundary of the Lincoln National Forest and the Mescalero Apache Reservation. More than one-thousand personnel from the Forest Service, community of Ruidoso, and Mescalero Tribe battled the fire. Although driven by fierce winds, the direction was favorable, blowing the fire down towards Cedar Creek and away from the cabins and cottages in Upper Canyon.
Silver Plume Fire 1940
The Silver Plume Fire started on Sunday, April 28, along Eagle Creek, North of Ruidoso. The cause of the fire is believed to have been man made, possibly arson. Sadly, Jay Vaughan Paris, an eighteen-year-old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollee from Coolidge, Texas, died while fighting the fire alongside five hundred other local ranchers and CCC enrollees.
Brady Fire 1945
1945 was an extremely active fire season in New Mexico, with more than seventy fires recorded between January and June of that year. The Brady Fire erupted at about 1:30 pm on Thursday, June 28. The fire grew quickly and at one point was less than one and a half miles from midtown Ruidoso. One hundred fifty citizens and Forest Service personnel, along with one hundred soldiers from the Alamogordo Army Air base, worked to construct a fire line across the canyon between the fire and midtown. Thankfully, a shift in the wind gave the defenders the time they needed to finish the containment line and save the village.
Gavilan Fire 1967
Less than a week after a fire ravaged 2,500 acres near Cloudcroft, a second blaze ignited just Northeast of Ruidoso in Gavilan Canyon on Friday, May 5. The response to the Gavilan Canyon Fire was unique in that almost one hundred percent of the six hundred men assigned to the fire were Native American and supported by five converted Airforce bombers dropping slurry on the area. The Crews fought a twenty-seven-hour battle to control the blaze in and around about fifty cottages, saving all but one shack from destruction.
School Fire 1974
It is still not known how the 208-acre School Fire started on March 7, 1974. The blaze ignited just northeast of the old Ruidoso airport,located where the Convention Center and Links Golf Course is today. Fueled by twenty-five mile per hour winds, the fire grew quickly, but crews utilized the airport’s infrastructure and adjoining roads to contain the fire before it climbed out of Cree Meadows and into adjoining neighborhoods.
Moon Fire 1977
On May 27, a human-caused fire erupted in a residential area on the southwest side of Moon Mountain. When fire crews reached the scene, a large pile of trash and building materials was burning and throwing sparks and embers into the air. The fire spread quickly into the ponderosa pines on the slopes of Moon Mountain, but crews built an effective containment line and managed to save the threatened homes, losing only one structure during the event.
Cree Fire 2000
An unattended campfire in Gavilan Canyon led to the eruption of the Cree Fire on Sunday, May 7. Strong winds drove towards inhabited areas of Rancho Ruidoso, High Mesa, Kokopelli, Homestead, Alto, Shangri La, Eagle Creek, and Valley Estates, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate. Diligent efforts by hand and dozer crews paid off and even though the fire eventually spread to more than 6,000 acres, the fire only claimed one mobile home.
Trap and Skeet Fire 2001
About 2pm on June 2, a fire broke out near the Inn of the Mountain gods on the Mescalero Reservation. Investigators eventually determined the cause to be arson. Officials evacuated multiple areas of Ruidoso, including Camelot, Crown Point, High Sierra, and Inn of the Mountain Gods residential areas. Due in part to a lull in high winds and increased humidity, crews were able to contain the fire by June 6.
Kokopelli Fire 2002
The Kokopelli Fire started accidentally in the driveway of a home after 12pm on Saturday, March 23. The fire destroyed thirty-two homes before crews brought it under control.
White Fire 2011
Started by the discharge of a firework on April 3, the White Fire quickly spread into the canyons north of Ruidoso Downs, driven by sixty mile per hour winds. The fire threatened both Ruidoso and Ruidoso Downs, eventually destroying five residences, one business, and several other buildings.
Little Bear Fire 2012
A lightning strike ignited the Little Bear Fire in the White Mountain Wilderness Area in south-central New Mexico on Monday, June 4. After initial success in containing the fire, weather conditions deteriorated on June 8, leading to an unexpected and explosive growth of the fire. The blaze destroyed a total of two hundred forty-two homes and the initial response was questioned through a formal investigation and report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Moon Mountain Fire 2016
This early season fire started on March 28, approximately 1.5 miles south of Ruidoso High School. Fire crews received some assistance from Mother Nature, when a spring snowfall occurred overnight between March 31 and April 1.
McBride Fire 2022
The McBride fire started on April 12, around 2:30 pm on Warrior Drive. The source of the fire was a downed power line caused by severe high winds in the area, with gusts up to ninety miles per hour. The fire spread quickly into adjoining residential areas and continued to move northeast towards the Sierra Blanca Regional Airport. The fire resulted in two confirmed fatalities and more than two hundred homes lost.