It would only take a few small sparks for TV’s biggest “social experiment,” UTOPIA, to go up in flames.
Fox has reportedly gambled $50 million on the U.S. version of a Dutch show in which 15 “pioneer” from all different backgrounds attempt to create and live in their own society for a full year.
But the lavish 3 acre set near Santa Clarita, California — which includes living quarters, a cattle barn, a state-of-the-art production studio and a man-made lake stocked with fish — is situated in an area highly susceptible to wildfires and surrounded by miles of dried up brush from the state’s worst drought in decades.
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“That is actually something that is a very big concern,” executive producer David Bohnert tells me.
“We deal with the fire department on a daily basis. We actually brought up water lines from the streets and have sprinklers in our barns. We added fire hydrants (outside), so we have really taken care to make sure everyone is protected.”
Bohnert and executive producer Jon Kroll shared more about their plans to keep both production staff and pioneers safe from fire, wild animals and other potential dangers when I visited the compound in late August.
How concerned are you that if a fire breaks out anywhere near the UTOPIA compound, it could knock you completely out of business?
DB: That has been discussed, but we are more concerned with an evacuation plan and keeping everyone safe. That is our primary concern. If [a fire] happens, I think it will be more of a network concern as to what happens [on the air]. Our job will be making sure that everyone gets out safely.
The idea of the show is that the pioneers are supposed to fend for themselves without interference or help from anyone. Where do you draw the line between “you are on your own” and “we won’t let you die in a gigantic inferno?”
DB: If they are going to die in an inferno, we are going to be stepping in. There are P.A. systems around the compound, so we can alert them to any danger.
JK: I think it is great to leave well enough alone, but we are always going to err on the side of caution — especially if it comes to a life threatening situation. My guess is we would be dealing with involvement from the fire department who we have a very close relationship with and have officers on site most if not all the time. So we will follow their lead.
Could weather pose any kind of threat?
JK: We are expecting that there will be all kinds of weather. At one point we heard that there could be an El Nino, so we should get more rain than we have been getting. So we are anxious to see what happens. Certain parts of the compound are in what could be considered part of a flood plain.
What other hazards might the pioneers encounter?
DB: There are a lot of different wild animals out here. Everything from mountain lions to bobcats and rattlesnakes and deer.
JK: Certainly one or two of our participants have plans for those deer — and that includes dinner. Hex the huntress has brought her bow. But I am sure Andrea the vegan will have something to say about that.
Has there been wildlife training?
JK: We are going over all of the hazards of the area with the cast, which is currently in sequester. But again, if there was a mountain lion on the premises that was stalking the area, my guess is that we would alert them if we thought they were in danger.
DB: The day they move in they will go through a safety procedure where the fire marshall talks to them. Someone from fish and game has also instructed us on safety procedures as well. Don’t engage with the bobcats, obviously. Or the mountain lions.
UTOPIA premieres Sunday, September 7 on Fox.
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