Inside the Terrifying ‘Virgin River’ Wildfire Episodes

Inside the Terrifying ‘Virgin River’ Wildfire Episodes

Inside the Terrifying ‘Virgin River’ Wildfire Episodes
A blaze threatens the town — and leaves massive destruction in its wake — in Season 5.

No matter what calamity befalls the small town at the center of Virgin River, one thing’s for certain: Its people will come together to protect one another. And that’s exactly what happens in the fifth and sixth episodes of Season 5, as a wildfire blazes through their Northern California town, leaving plenty of destruction in its wake.

As the fire closes in on Virgin River, the residents we know and love prepare for the worst. Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) heads back to the clinic to treat patients with smoke inhalation, while Doc (Tim Matheson) and Cameron (Mark Ghanimé) tend to an injured firefighter. Hope (Annette O’Toole) takes charge of the evacuation, while Jack (Martin Henderson), Brady (Benjamin Hollingsworth), and Preacher (Colin Lawrence) light backfires and rescue trapped residents. Even teenagers Lizzie (Sarah Dugdale) and Denny (Kai Bradbury) help rush people to safety.

The wildfire episodes present some of the biggest challenges the Virgin River team has faced — not only in terms of production logistics and acting challenges, but also because of the very real threat wildfires now play in our daily lives. Said actor Kai Bradbury on set in 2022, the fires are “unfortunately topical, but I’m glad we’re addressing it.”

Instead of setting the kind of fires that would put Virgin River’s British Columbia set in danger, “we had a lot of special effects,” star Martin Henderson told Tudum in 2022. “We had wind machines and ash blowing through the air and explosions and propane flames so you could feel some of the practical heat next to you.” Bradbury explained that a lot of the fires he dealt with on set were via LED projection, plus “fake ash and smoke and sweat.”

 

Tudum also spoke with Dr. Emily Fischer, a professor in the department of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who was forced to flee from the devastating Cameron Peak Fire in 2020, who says that the episodes were quite similar to her own experience.

“[Virgin River] hit a lot of the chaos of events like that — the road closures, the very mixed understanding of how fast wildfire can spread, the very mixed understanding of what the right thing to do in that situation is,” she says.

 

Fischer, a climate scientist who works with the organization Science Moms to spread awareness about climate change, says she was also struck when watching the series by “the amazingness of the incident responder teams and the incident management teams and what a gift to society they are.” The show reminded her of the first responders who helped her and many other families evacuate during the Cameron Peak Fire. “I was beyond impressed with the teams here in Colorado during our events, and our countywide emergency services for these kinds of events are a beautiful example of how the world could work. When a wildfire comes, people can and often do collaborate at all levels of government, at all political affiliations, to do the right thing. It’s really a heartening thing.”

Actor Colin Lawrence told Tudum much the same thing on a 2022 visit to the Virgin River set. He was proud, he said, that his character was able to rise to the occasion and help his town survive. “Preacher was a Marine, so he’s used to being in high-stakes situations,” Lawrence says. “He bonded with his brothers, and they did what they had to do to make sure that the town was as safe as it could be.”

For the cast of Virgin River, it felt meaningful to act out a scenario with such urgent real-world parallels. As wildfires continue to threaten communities around the world, “I think it’s so important to focus on these things,” said actor Annette O’Toole. “Sometimes the small towns, they can be completely obliterated.”

 

Virgin River’s fire episodes deliver a sobering look at what kinds of issues the planet will continue to face in the future, and it’s those issues Fischer and her colleagues at Science Moms are trying to educate people about.


Fischer’s research focuses on nontraditional sources of air pollutants, like wildfires. “We work on both what’s in the smoke and also how smoke moves,” she tells Tudum. “We support epidemiologists and economists who ask questions like, ‘When smoke is present, what happens at a population level? What are the health impacts?’ ”

During the Virgin River episodes, Mel, who’s experiencing a high-risk pregnancy, discovers she’s miscarrying her baby. Although the smoke likely did not cause her miscarriage, Fischer says we do know that, for pregnant people who are exposed to higher concentrations of smoke in the second trimester, “there does appear to be some impacts on the pregnancy. These are real things with real people that are sad. Those numbers are somebody’s life — 5% increase in a [tragic] outcome is a big deal for that one person.”

 

It’s all connected, Fischer says. “There are things we don’t understand about climate change, but there are things that we understand quite well, actually. And one of them is that temperature is going to go up in the Western US, and the other one is that tends to make things drier, supporting larger and faster-growing wildfires. We expect that climate change is going to prime the forests for larger wildfires, and that’s sad because we know what that looks like from a human perspective. That’s not something anyone wants to experience.”

As we face up to these harsh truths, Virgin River and other media have the opportunity to share with a wider audience how devastating wildfires and other climate catastrophes can be — and the collaborative human effort required to fight them.

“It kind of felt like we were shooting an action movie there for a bit,” actor Benjamin Hollingsworth told Tudum on set. “It’s really fast-paced and there’s a lot at stake. I mean, Virgin River could be burnt to the ground, so cue Jack, cue all the heroes in the city working together, cue everyone in the community working together to save the town.”

Working together to save the town — the Virgin River way.

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