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Wildfire Leads to Ministry – and Salvation – In One New Mexico Community

New Mexico Wildfires

RUIDOSO, NM - Ruidoso New Mexico's wildfire season typically begins in May or June but this year, thanks to the West's mega-drought, it started in early April. 

"Our risk season is incredibly and dangerously early," said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last month.

Right now, firefighters are battling the largest wildfire in the state's history.

The Hermits Peak fire began as a prescribed burn on April 6 but jumped its boundary as a result of high winds. It later combined with the Calf Canyon fire which started on April 19. The two are still just 40 percent contained and have already scorched more than 300,000 acres. 

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A few hours south in Ruidoso, people are cleaning up after the McBride fire destroyed more than 200 homes last month.

Residents say the high winds quickly moved the fire through their community, forcing people to evacuate within minutes.

"We literally left with the clothes on our back," James Paxton told CBN News. "We had nothing but that."

Pastor Dustin McEwen of Community United Methodist says the fire's speed caught him by surprise. "I was going to pick up my daughter at school. I was at the bus parking lot. When I got there, there was no smoke and within 15 minutes I saw houses on fire," he said.

The fire has also led churches and ministries across the city to respond, thanks in part to Ruidoso pastors who've met together for prayer for years. 

"I think that's made a huge difference in how we've responded to the fire," said Pastor John Duncan of Gateway Church. "We have come to know each other and trust each other."

In the early, chaotic moments those connections led to quick, easy communication and effective outreach.

"Because we have that trust, everybody just kind of gets in our lane," said Duncan.

He and other members of Gateway initially focused on getting the most vulnerable out of harm's way, including one man who was sleeping. "He's 90 and he did not know there was a fire," said Duncan. "One of the members of our church thought of him and called him and woke him up. So we were able to get there and help him before the fire came through his neighborhood."

Later, Gateway collected clothing and water for fire victims.

Community United Methodist Church opened its doors to evacuees on the first day.

"We cooked meals for people on that day and on subsequent days," said McEwen. "just making sure that people had the basic necessities – a play to stay, a place to eat, and a place to stay safe."

Pastor Todd Sullens of First Baptist Ruidoso opened his church to Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers. New teams have arrived weekly to help clean up properties destroyed by the fire.

Ed Greene, deputy state director for New Mexico Baptist Disaster Relief, said the trained volunteers perform a variety of tasks, from sifting through ash for prized possessions to cutting and hauling away charred trees.

"To even know where to begin is just overwhelming to people," he said. "So that's just a basic need that we can come in and help them begin to get their footing."

The volunteers are also available to share the Gospel with those they're helping. Sullens said that in the weeks following the fire, sixteen people have accepted Christ.

"I've seen that love softening hearts for the Gospel and people are getting real tender," he said. "We have a window. We have an opportunity right now while people are hurting to come and minister the balm of Gilead."

As churches in Ruidoso come together to share Christ, it's spurring a spirit of unity and also thankfulness as many realize that the fire could have destroyed more than it did.

"We could have lost thousands if the wind would have been in a different direction," said McEwen. "And just the gratitude that we have here. I have three people in my church that the fire got up to their doorstep. Parts of their buildings were singed but their houses were saved."

For Ruidoso, the focus right now is to not only rebuild but to prepare for another potential disaster. Large-scale wildfires are known to dramatically alter the terrain, leaving the ground unable to soak up water and creating conditions ripe for flooding. 

"It's going to be a challenge," said Duncan.

Pain and suffering are an inescapable part of life but God promises to use them for our good. Click here to learn more.

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