Film crews work around wildfires

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Blaze > Firefighters take over Valles Caldera

By The Staff

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is considered one of the natural jewels of northern New Mexico, with its expansive meadows, mountain vistas and famous elk herds. It draws thousands of visitors each year and serves as the backdrop for the opening scene of A&E Network’s television series “Longmire.”

Now, hundreds of firefighters have replaced the film crews.

They’re trying to slow a wildfire that has charred more than 28 square miles of the picturesque property in just one week.

The Thompson Ridge Fire, sparked by a downed power line on May 30, has blackened the western side of the 89,000-acre preserve and came close to the preserve’s historic cabins and barns. Crews saved the buildings.

On the other side of the Santa Fe National Forest, crews were battling the Tres Lagunas Fire, which was burned more than 15 square miles north of Pecos.

Both fires have blanketed northern New Mexico in smoke for the past week. Fire officials said Friday evening that crews made progress during the day on both fires as they prepared for unfavorable weather — more hot, dry and windy conditions — to arrive over the weekend. They said both blazes were now 40 percent contained and evacuations for both remained in effect.

The “Longmire” crew has been filming their second season in northern New Mexico since March. While they’re done with the Valles Caldera for now, the producers did attend a recent public meeting on the fire.

“They wanted to be there to make sure they’re not going to be in anyone’s way at any time,” said Nick Maniatis, director of the New Mexico Film Office. “And they’ve made friends with a lot of the folks in the area near Valles Caldera and they were checking on them to make sure they’re all right. They’re very sensitive to what’s going on.”

There are several movies being produced in New Mexico right now, including two westerns that did have to deal with some smoke from the two fires. However, Maniatis said none of the productions have been delayed.

The Thompson Ridge fire has burned 18,527 acres in the Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Santa Fe National Forest near Jemez Springs.

Some 1,092 firefighters and other personnel are assigned to the fire, which is of Saturday was at 40 percent containment.

New Mexico is coming off of two consecutive record fire seasons, and concerns are high that this could be another bad season given the extremely dry conditions that have a hold over the state.

Valles Caldera has been hit particularly hard. In 2011, the eastern edge of the preserve was hammered by the Las Conchas blaze, which ended up in the record books as one of New Mexico’s largest fires. During that fire, about one-third of the preserve was burned.

It’s too soon to say whether the Thompson Ridge Fire will force the “Longmire” crew to consider another backdrop or whether the fires will have an effect on other movie scouts.

“Depending on the location and what they’re trying to shoot, they may have to look in other areas or maybe it’s something they can incorporate into the story. I just don’t know yet,” Maniatis said.

Meanwhile, firefighters assigned to both blazes have been using the high humidity and lower temperatures to their advantage as they conduct burnout operations to clear fuel ahead of the flames. They’re racing to build as big of a black line as possible around the fire before the weather turns.

Ground crews are getting help from several water-dropping helicopters and planes.

Fire managers on Friday were also asking travelers to avoid N.M. 4 between Los Alamos and Jemez Springs due to the fire on the Valles Caldera.