Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
First in a series
RUIDOSO – Standing at the top of McBride Drive in Ruidoso, the path of the recent wildfire seems almost random. Gleaming houses with manicured lawns sit directly next to piles of charred rubble with only chimneys left standing.
Just like the houses overlooking Gavilan Canyon Road on the village’s east side, where the wildfire ripped through in April, businesses in Ruidoso were met with a similarly scattered fate.
Some businesses lost all in the McBride Fire, which burned nearly 6,200 acres, destroyed more than 200 homes and left two people dead. Others are moving ahead as usual with the start of the summer season in the small mountain village near Roswell in southern New Mexico.
On Sudderth Drive, one of the main commercial districts in Ruidoso, families wandered in and out of shops, bags in hand, on the Tuesday after Memorial Day.
Though commercial and tourism activity is returning to the village after April’s fire, Kendra King, executive director of Ruidoso Midtown Association and owner of Cool Stuff at 102 Center Street, said this May was much slower than expected for many businesses, despite pandemic restrictions being lifted and the fires being put out.
“When the lodging dwindles, when people are canceling reservations, when restaurants are slow, then the economy is slightly altered and affected that way,” she said.
King said business at Cool Stuff, located on a side street of Sudderth Drive, has been slower than expected – and she’s not alone.
“There was an absolute revenue loss and that first week when power wasn’t available for days on end, it was hard to operate during that time frame,” King said. “So, absolutely revenue was affected.”
Waves of trouble
King said she thinks part of the slowdown in business is due to several successive waves of disasters to hit Ruidoso.
First, there was the wildfire, which started April 12. No cause has been released for the fire, which was fueled by strong winds, a lack of rain and high temperatures. However, a lawsuit alleging the fire started after a falling tree downed a PNM power line has been filed. The Journal filed a records request Thursday afternoon with the New Mexico State Forestry Division related to the cause of the fire, but had not received a response before publication.
During the fire, King said, many businesses lost power for several days and closed temporarily while the community had to focus on housing residents who had lost their homes. King herself had a friend who stayed with her for a while after the friend’s house burned in the fire.
But life, and tourism, did not pick up immediately after the fires ended, she said.
Businesses, especially those in the lodging and hospitality sector, were met with a deluge of calls from prospective visitors either canceling reservations or calling to see if the town was still on fire, King said.
“There are multiple fires burning around New Mexico, so, on top of just our town having that negative imagery put on it because of that happening, it’s looking like the whole state is on fire,” she said. “So, we have tourists from Arizona and Texas that are canceling their trips. They’re thinking New Mexico is not a good place to visit right now, so we noticed that hit right off the bat.”
The McBride Fire is just one of several wildfires to rip across New Mexico this year during a particularly devastating wildfire season.
Fires across the state have grown to more than 660,000 acres. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, now the largest fire in state history, had grown to 340,000 acres and was 72% contained as of Friday morning.
Widespread wildfires and lack of rainfall across multiple regions prompted statewide closures of national forests on May 25.
While tourism has largely returned, King said the closures of the national forests was still deterring some tourists who were planning to visit Ruidoso for recreation in the nearby Lincoln National Forest.
Ruidoso T-Shirt Co. and T-Shirt Outlet on Sudderth Drive is one of the stores seeing a decline in sales following the fire, according to manager Vicky Sedillo. She said April is generally a slow month, but business didn’t pick up in May as she expected.
Sedillo said she had expected a sales increase compared to last May because pandemic restrictions had been lifted. Instead, the store did about a quarter of sales compared to May 2021.
“Right now, with the forest being closed, as well, I think we’re not getting a lot of the visitors because of that,” she said. “We usually get the people that want to come in and camp, and that kind of thing.”
Robert Duncan, owner of Upper Canyon Lodging Co., said high gas prices and economic issues may be dissuading some of his customers from booking a room. Duncan’s business offers more than 100 options for lodging, most of which are cabins.
Duncan said that, while business has picked up after the McBride Fire, he knows tourists looking to make their way to “Little Texas” are most likely affected by higher gas, lodging and food prices.
“The bulk of my customers are in that mid-range to economy,” Duncan said. “When you look at the news, they say, ‘Oh, gas is up this amount; new cars are up 22%; eggs are up 24%; lodging is up 30%,’ or whatever it is. I can’t go up 30% because I (would) take the bulk of my guests out of the mix.”
Duncan said he believes media coverage left many outside of Ruidoso believing the town was still on fire. At one point, Duncan had his son post on the company’s Facebook page – which boasts nearly 50,000 followers – that Upper Canyon Lodging Co. was still running.
And, one by one, guests have been making their way back – calling Duncan’s business to make sure that they were, in fact, open.
“Ruidoso has gone through a horrible time. We’ve lost two lives and 200 properties. The fires are now out and it’s time to heal,” Duncan said. “The village needs you to come back.”
While the wildfires resulted in less traffic for some businesses, others, especially those located on Gavilan Canyon Road, suffered a complete loss.
Canyon Hideaway was among the businesses that burned down in the wildfire.
The business’s bath house and seven RVs were lost to the fire, owner Robbie Hall said, leaving the company closed until Hall and his family, who help him run the park, are able to rebuild.
Just a mile down the road, Ruidoso Septic Services lost everything. Weeks after the fire passed through, the company’s yard was dotted with melted trucks and equipment, and the building that housed the office caved in as if a bomb had hit it.
“You can either whine about it, and sit back and do nothing, or you can get up off your (expletive), and go back to work and make the best of what you have got left,” Hall said.
Some businesses booming
Some businesses escaped the negative effects of the fire altogether.
At Parts Unknown, an outdoor retailer on Sudderth Drive, the fire brought a small wave of business – namely firefighters in need of such last-minute gear as boots and wool socks.
When many of the stores along Ruidoso’s strip were empty due to the power outage, store manager Travis Romero spent time in and out of his shop outfitting firefighters and others assisting in battling the blaze.
“I posted my number on the front door and said, ‘hey, if you’re a firefighter and … you need anything urgently, just call me,’ ” Romero said.
He received a “couple dozen” calls after posting his number. “They were just happy to have someone local … rather than … purchasing online,” he said.
Parts Unknown, previously Brunell’s, has long carried firefighter boots in the event of a wildfire, even though the boots can require a costly upfront investment, Romero said. Boots retail between $300 and $600 per pair.
Romero said he sold about 100 pairs of wool socks to firefighters. Some out-of-state firefighters purchased new clothes at his store, too.
Romero said business was fairly slow in early May, but he thinks he probably finished the month with traffic similar to previous years.
Like Parts Unknown, The Village Buttery escaped the fire relatively unscathed. Manager Jenna Preciado said the biggest loss was having to throw away lots of food items after the restaurant lost power for several days.
But, since reopening, Preciado said traffic is the same as usual.
Whether businesses kept a similar level of traffic or saw a decrease, all agree on one thing: They want tourists to come back to Ruidoso.
“We’re here and welcoming any visitors,” King said. “The Ruidoso community wants to see its visitors continue to come and enjoy the beautiful mountain town.”