New Mexico to stand in for California as McConaughey stars in film about a 2018 deadly wildfire

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is standing in for California in a new film as Jamie Lee Curtis’ production company and others tell the story of a bus driver and a school teacher who rescued students during the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

The 2018 blaze killed 85 people and nearly erased the community of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Some residents have returned to help make something new, while others are still haunted by their memories.

Curtis was among those marking the five-year anniversary in November when she posted on social media about the people of Paradise having suffered an unimaginable inferno and talked about the bravery of residents and the heroes who suited up and responded.

She said at the time she was proud to be producing a film based on the stories in Lizzie Johnson's novel: “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire.”

“The Lost Bus” was a project that started in 2022. Now, filming is underway in and around Santa Fe and Española and in Ruidoso, a mountainous area of southern New Mexico that also has seen its share of wildfires — including a deadly fire in 2022 that was sparked by a downed power line.

From California to New Mexico and other parts of the West, wildfires have become more volatile amid drier and hotter conditions that have been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. So far this year, more than 2,812 square miles (7,283 square kilometers) have burned — more than double the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The film will star Matthew McConaughey and America Ferrera under the direction of Paul Greengrass. Emmy Award winner Brad Ingelsby, Greg Goodman and Jason Blum's production company Blumhouse will join Curtis' Comet Pictures in producing the film.

“The Lost Bus” will focus on bus driver Kevin McKay and teacher Mary Ludwig, who helped navigate a bus full of children through the deadly wildfire.

In an interview in 2018, Marc Kessler, a science teacher at a Paradise Unified School District middle school, told The Associated Press he arrived at work early that Thursday morning and saw smoke plumes that soon grew uncomfortably near.

Teachers, aides and bus drivers loaded more than 100 students into cars and school buses as the fast-moving wildfire approached, Kessler said. They drove hours through smoke and flames to safely reunite the children with their families.

In McKay's case, he responded to an emergency call and picked up 22 students from Ponderosa Elementary School as the flames approached. Ludwig and fellow teacher Abbie Davis helped to comfort the children.

Curtis in a 2022 interview with Deadline said as a lifelong California resident, she watched with profound sadness as the ferocious fire consumed Paradise. She had said she wanted to be able to turn the stories in Johnson's novel into a film that would explore the human elements, tragedies and bravery that stemmed from the wildfire.

The production will employ 480 New Mexico crew members and 2,100 extras, according to the New Mexico Film Office.

Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press