TORONTO — William Baldwin has been through some harrowing emergency situations, both on and off-screen.
The American actor, who played a firefighter in “Backdraft” and stars as a search-and-rescue commander in the new CBC series “Northern Rescue,” says a massive California blaze known as the Thomas Fire came within two blocks of his house in January 2018.
Soon after, a mudslide from a nearby mountain wiped out his entire neighbourhood, destroying hundreds of homes, killing 23 people and forcing him and his wife, singer Chynna Phillips, to move with their three kids to a new home in Santa Barbara.
“The water came down at 40 miles an hour, it lifted these boulders out of the creek beds and just annihilated everything in its path — cars, telephone poles, houses,” Baldwin recalled in a recent interview, noting his house was OK but they were evacuated and ended up moving to avoid future catastrophe.
“Some people were pulled from the top of the mountain all the way down to the railroad tracks in the flow of the water. My friend rescued my other friend’s wife and children, and when he was there, he was talking to the cops and they heard a baby crying. This happened at 4:45 in the morning,” he continued.
“They looked down and there was a little baby that was being swept away in the current of the mud. She was in a basket of branches and leaves and she was covered in mud but her face was being protected by these branches. They heard her crying and they pulled her out of the mud — two years old.”
A massive wildfire also raged to the north of the set of “Northern Rescue” during shooting in Parry Sound, Ont., last summer.
Debuting Friday on the CBC Gem streaming service and later on CBC TV and Netflix in the U.S., the series stars Baldwin as a grieving widower and father of three who moves the family from Boston to his small northern hometown to run the local search-and-rescue service. Hamilton-born Kathleen Robertson co-stars as his sister-in-law.
David Cormican, the show’s Emmy-nominated producer and co-creator, said the fire wasn’t close enough to the set to pose a threat. But some of their local crew had family members who lost property and land to the blaze and were given time off to attend to personal matters.
Amalia Williamson, Spencer MacPherson, and Taylor Thorne play the teenage children in the drama that focuses on the family dynamics and relationships in the fictional Canadian town of Turtle Island Bay.
The town name is “a subtle sign of appreciation to the community that we were in,” said Cormican, who lives in Toronto.
“Of course Turtle Island is North America to Indigenous peoples. We were surrounded by nature constantly so we wanted to have a bit of a wink and a nod to the area that we were in and the people whose land we were very fortunate to share and to highlight. And we also hired a lot of Indigenous people during production and filming, in front of the camera and behind.”
Baldwin said he was recruited for the project by a friend of his from Toronto, Bradley Walsh, who is an executive producer and director on the show.
The actor identified with the role, having three teenagers himself. It also brought him back to his days as a first responder in 1991’s “Backdraft,” which will be revisited in a sequel that’s already been shot but doesn’t have a release date.
For Baldwin, who is also an executive producer on the show, it was but one of many Canadian locations he’s worked in throughout his career.
“I’ve been to more places in Canada than some Canadians, and certainly most Americans,” Baldwin said, rhyming off a long list of places, big and small, in nearly every province.
He may also be an even bigger hockey buff than many Canucks.
Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., he said he was a huge New York Islanders fan and revered the Canadian players on the team, including Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Chico Resch, and Claude Lemieux.
Naturally, when Baldwin came face-to-face with Parry Sound hockey legend Bobby Orr while shooting “Northern Rescue,” he could barely contain his excitement.
“I became 12 years old again,” Baldwin said, noting the encounter happened at a dinner fundraiser for the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame.
“He was introduced to me and he gave me a big Bobby Orr-like hand-crushing shake. He almost tore my arm off. Seventy years old, beautiful guy, looks great, still svelte, still handsome.”