Katie Dowd – SFGate, San Francisco
Oct. 25—The first 30 minutes of CBS’ new primetime drama “Fire Country” are enough to give any Californian a bad feeling about the direction of the show.
As a raging wildfire bears down on a town, three characters find themselves trapped in the burning forest. Although they’re moments from disaster, two of the characters decide to get into a shouting argument — and then a physical fistfight — over a girl who died off-screen. After some punching in the midst of Camp Fire-level conflagration, they make it back to safety while, seemingly without reason, the wildfire peters out.
“Fire Country” purports to show a dramatization of Cal Fire firefighters on the job. But it’s so inaccurate that even before the series debuted earlier this month, Cal Fire released a statement disavowing it.
“This television series is a misrepresentation of the professional all-hazards fire department and resource protection agency that Cal Fire is,” Cal Fire Chief Joe Tyler said in May when the trailer dropped.
As a quick plot summary: For those familiar with cop/firefighter procedurals like “9-1-1,” “Fire Country” follows a similar format, mixing problem-of-the-week disasters with interpersonal drama. Max Thieriot, who grew up in the Bay Area and co-writes the show, plays Bode Donovan. Donovan has committed some felonies of the generally forgivable sort — he’s the protagonist and heartthrob, after all — and in an attempt to shorten his prison sentence, he volunteers for California’s inmate firefighting program. He’s sent to his hometown of Edgewood, which is a vaguely Humboldt-y place where almost everyone knows him and is not a fan of his checkered past. Wildfires, love triangles and interminable conversations about one character’s Olympic diving career ensue.
It’s not entirely clear who this show is for. It’s certainly not for people who live in areas that regularly see wildfires. Close-up shots of fires are real, actual fires, and long shots of whole mountainsides ablaze are achieved with an uncanny valley CGI. In addition to the stressfulness of seeing real and faked fires, Californians are pretty well-versed in fire lingo: acreage, containment, evacuation orders. When a massive, uncontrolled wildfire strafing across dry, rugged terrain is declared “60% contained” by the end of the pilot episode, it’s impossible not to roll your eyes at how quickly it was extinguished. In the same episode, Cal Fire battalion Chief Vince Leone (played by Billy Burke, the dad from “Twilight”) begs for a new dozer by invoking the Hanley Fire, which broke out in Santa Rosa in 1964.
“Y’all don’t remember the Hanley Fire, but I do,” he says. The actor, who was born in 1966, certainly doesn’t. And most Bay Area residents probably don’t either, because we have dozens more devastating events in recent memory — like the Tubbs Fire, which happened recently in the exact same town and would have made a much better reference point.
By episode two, small missteps have become full-blown absurdities. A dry lightning storm — another wildfire-sparking phenomenon familiar to Californians — strikes Edgewood. Over the course of a single day, one lightning strike obliterates a 40-foot tree, literally shattering it into a million tiny pieces in a single blow, and another blasts a hole through a van and inexplicably creates a crater the size of a cow in the road. (The driver of the van ends up with a chunk of molten-hot asphalt seared to his abdomen. “It’s cooking him!” one of the firefighters says while pouring bottled water on the man and the asphalt. The physics and medical value of this are unclear.)
It should come as no surprise that a show that can barely handle basic wildfire lingo also struggles to sensitively discuss one of California’s most controversial programs: Conservation Fire Camps. Much has been written about inmate firefighters. They’re paid just dollars a day, and, up until recently, even though they were officially trained, many could not become full-time firefighters afterward due to their status as convicted felons. But none of the ethical dilemmas or poor future prospects come up on “Fire Country.” Instead, we’re treated to an inspirational tale of how one of the professional firefighters came from the inmate program (unlikely) and how another inmate believes he’ll be able to buy a food truck with his Conservation Camp earnings (even less likely).
But if everything about “Fire Country” was perfect, it would still have a glaring problem: Who in wildfire country wants to relive the horrors of the past decade?
There is not a single person in California who is untouched by fires. Some have lost loved ones and homes. Others have lived through the terror of midnight evacuations, sometimes year after year. And everyone has endured the choking smoke and poor air quality that studies have shown are shortening our lifespans and making us sicker. Watching a poorly animated CGI fire rip through the landscape is not a fictional thrill for any of us. Would CBS have made “Hurricane Country,” showing people dying and losing their homes to hurricanes every week? I’m betting not, but somehow California’s wildfire season was deemed romantic and intriguing enough for the masses.
There is one scene, though, that Californians won’t quibble with the writers of “Fire Country” on. In the first episode, the massive wildfire is triggered when a woman crashes her SUV into a power line. The power line starts sparking like a mid-sized firework on the Fourth of July, catching the dry tinder alight and ripping up the mountainside.
At last, I thought, something we can all agree on: No one trusts PG&E.
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