How the 2017 North Bay firestorm inspired ‘Fire Country,’ new CBS show starring Max Thieriot

Sonoma County fires inspired local actor to write, produce and star in CBS show|

Deep into the night of Oct. 9, 2017, Max Thieriot got a call from his mother. She pleaded with him to come home ASAP.

Thieriot was by then an established TV star, having just completed a four-year run playing Norman Bates’ brother, Dylan Massett, on the “Psycho” prequel “Bates Motel.” He’d recently started what would become a long-running gig on the CBS action hit “SEAL Team.”

But duty called for this small-town boy from Occidental. However high his star rises, his heart remains in Sonoma County.

“My mom and my sister and my brother live in Occidental, and my mom was calling me in the middle of the night to hop on a truck and come up from LA and help load up horse trailers and move animals and livestock and go around the county and pick up animals,” Thieriot said.

The 33-year-old actor was speaking by phone from Vancouver, where he is filming “Fire Country,” a new series that permiered last Friday on CBS. The one-hour drama – which only coincidentally debuted on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Tubbs and Nuns fires – focuses on the men and women who fight the wildfires that have in recent years become a constant threat in Sonoma County and throughout the state.

It was Thieriot himself, drawing on his own experiences and those of people he knows back home in Sonoma County, who came up with the concept, collaborated on a pilot script with Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, and pitched the idea to network brass.

As it was for anyone in Napa and Sonoma counties who lived through that traumatic time, the dueling Tubbs and Nuns Canyon fires that ripped through Santa Rosa and the upper Sonoma Valley left an indelible impression on him.

“It was chaos. It was so surreal and unbelievable that this fire was spreading where it was,” he recalled. “People just couldn’t imagine this ever happening. And after it was all over, I was driving around, and it was just hard to digest … all over Mark West, and then to drive past and see (Cardinal) Newman (High School) and Coffey Park. My gosh, the devastation.”

In “Fire Country,” Thieriot plays Bode Donovan, a convict recruited to serve in one of the state’s rural penal firefighting camps. California has been using prison labor to help fight wildfires since World War II. For Bode, it’s a chance to get out of a cell, earn a little money (very little, as prisoners make just $2 to $5 a day) and get time shaved off his sentence.

But to his dismay, he’s assigned to a camp in his hometown of Edgewater, a fictional Northern California village slightly bigger than, but not unlike, Occidental. As the first two episodes unfold, it becomes clear that Bode, a onetime golden boy and baseball player whose life fell to pieces, has demons he doesn’t want to face.

The personal experience Thieriot brings to the show “can’t be beat,” said Tia Napolitano, showrunner and executive producer for “Fire Country.”

“He has so many small-town stories, so many Northern California stories, so many firefighting stories,” Napolitano said. “We’re not just inventing the authenticity he brings to the table, whether it’s wardrobe or music. We’re really transporting the audience to a small town in Northern California.”

Thieriot said he had long dreamed of filming the show in Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties, perhaps working out of a soundstage at Mare Island, to “really visually capture” the landscape of the North Coast. His wife, Lexi, however, warned him that wouldn’t happen. And she was right. As it turned out, cost and other roadblocks pushed the filming location north to Canada.

“It’s the reality of California these days. … It’s just too expensive. And it’s so unfortunate because it’s obviously a great place to film,” Thieriot said. “And yet, it’s hard to justify spending all that extra money to be there.”

They instead looked for locations in British Columbia that evoked Humboldt County, where Thieriot places his fictional Edgewater, described as “200 miles north of San Francisco.”

Nonetheless, local place names are dropped into the dialogue: Bodega Highway, Highway 101 and Glen Ellen (where Cal Fire maintains a station).

“Fire Country” uses the Cal Fire name and dramatizes interactions between state and inmate firefighters. After viewing a trailer for the show last spring, Cal Fire and the union that represents its rank-and-file firefighters issued a statement disavowing any involvement with the series and criticizing its depiction of firefighters.

Thieriot maintains that the story is based on expert input from firefighters he knows in Sonoma County.

“I have many friends who are firefighters in Sonoma County, folks from all different departments, who I have spoken to throughout this entire process,” he said. “The consensus among them is they’re all very excited.”

Napolitano notes that the show relies on expert consultants, including two firefighters assigned to the set as technical advisers to ensure they’re using the right props and techniques.

Napolitano said she “grew up in the Shondaland camp” of well-known producer Shonda Rhimes, writing for such shows as “Grey’s Anatomy,” where deep topical research was expected for any storyline.

Both believe “Fire Country,” however, is not just a flashy action show with a lot of stunts and special effects.

“This isn’t just a show about firefighting. It’s a show that goes home with our heroes,” Napolitano said. “We’re soapy and character-driven. We get into our characters’ personal lives and the people who the firefighters are custodians of. We will really get to know Edgewater as a character and build that world out and understand how firefighters are heroes.”

Thieriot, an insanely busy actor who also signed on for a sixth season of “SEAL Team” as well as an initial 13 episodes of “Fire Country,” sees the new show as a story about redemption and second chances. It also can shed some light on issues that may get overlooked, like the challenges facing Gold Star families and people dealing with PTSD, he said.

“For me, it’s also an opportunity to have a big platform to be able to try and bring something positive to the world that is still really divided. Through this show, we get to see people from two completely different walks of life,” he said, pointing out the juxtaposition of prison inmates working with blue-collar firefighters, each with their story.

In “Fire Country,” Bode returns to a town where both his parents work for Cal Fire and where a series of tragic events led to his alienation and fall from grace.

It’s a place not unlike Occidental, where he still maintains a second home and where he fondly recalls walking to the market after school for candy, or caroling and Christmas at The Union Hotel.

“It’s like ‘Friday Night Lights’ was not a show about football. That was just the backdrop for the show,” he said. “It’s really about the people.”

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