‘Rebuilding Paradise’ Surveys the Camp Fire Devastation and Warns of the Dangers of Climate Change
“We just left pleasure,” President Donald Trump declares before being reminded the name of the devastated town he just toured is Paradise, “and what we saw is not acceptable.” However inappropriate his words may have been in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Nov. 8, 2018, wildfire which incinerated Paradise, Calif., they were one of the truest statements he’s ever made, if referring to the town’s reconstruction. The National Geographic documentary “Rebuilding Paradise,” directed by Ron Howard, highlights an inconvenient truth a large number of people in power refuse to accept. First responders understand it. Climate change is having a visible effect on life as we know it now, not an indiscriminately projected future.
The documentary opens shortly before noon, though you would never guess it by looking at the sky, which is so full of soot it looks like the midnight hours. The entire landscape of the Sierra Nevada foothills has been rendered black with splotches of bright orange and occasional hot yellows. The blaze sweeps in with the force and speed of a hurricane. The area is in chaos amidst 40-mph gusts of wind, screaming sirens and frantic 911 calls. Tree trunks are burning. Propane tanks explode like land mines. Tires pop. Horses scramble. Cars are bumper to bumper on a narrow escape route. Patients are evacuated from a hospital. “Am I going to die,” a child asks.
The first thing you learn from “Rebuilding Paradise” is how fast these forest fires go from ember to catastrophe. It seems like mere minutes have passed between the time the Fire Department requests more trucks, dozers, and as much overtime manpower can be brought in and we hear someone say “the firemen can’t be everywhere.”
The 2018 Camp Fire followed several seasons of severe drought, and was the most destructive fire in California’s history. It killed 85 people and left 50,000 homeless. The wildfire laid waste to Paradise in less than three hours. The recovery, on the other hand, is a slow moving disaster of its own, the documentary reveals in a series of personal testimonials. A month after being cast out, fleeing for their lives, the residents return to Paradise. Almost all the houses have been burned to barely recognizable piles of rubble. Eight of the nine schools in the town are damaged, if not completely destroyed. The water is contaminated. The air is still toxic.
The story is told by longtime residents, nice people like Woody Culleton, who went from Otis to Andy, town drunk to mayor of Paradise. Police officer Matt Gates breaks down when he tells the story of one woman’s escape. Vietnam War veteran Philip John discusses his now all-too-familiar relationship with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The town, which has roots going back to the Gold Rush, is now 240 square miles of scorched earth. “Rebuilding Paradise” doesn’t dwell on how the town used to be. It stays in the present. Whatever possessions the people abandoned are buried, burned or lost. A woman who had a shot glass collection has one survivor, a commemorative one with John Wayne on it. There is rubble where the hospital stood. The residents are living temporarily in trailer homes in Chico which cost more than their homes did. Toxic chemicals which were released during the fire have poisoned the water supply and it will be months, possibly years, until that can be fixed.
Howard focuses on the survivors’ attempts to rebuild their community and the documentary is meant to show how resourceful and resilient they are. They are forced to live in a tent city in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Cots fill gyms. Howard’s camera focuses on school superintendent Michelle John. She is a true believer in the reconstructive strength of education and tries to fit kids, a lot of who are now homeless, in makeshift classrooms at warehouses, vacant stores and rental space at malls. She’s so wholesome she could be Mrs. C.
The documentary shows how the government fails to provide in a humane way. The citizens who want to return are asked to consider closing the area to development because it’s dangerous. They are ready to start over, but bureaucracy grinds progress to a standstill. Townspeople have to get permission to rebuild on their own property. It takes months for FEMA to decide whether schools can remove trees. The beloved ex-town-drunk-turned-mayor gets one of the first three rebuilding permits. By the end of the documentary, which is about a year after the fire, hardly anything has been rebuilt. The documentary ends while they soldier on, seemingly tirelessly, but probably exhausted. “Rebuilding Paradise” shows this has all been a long time coming.
The wildfire was caused by sparks emanating from a broken hook on one of Pacific Gas & Electric’s 100-year-old transmission lines. It was exacerbated when PG&E neglected to cut power despite fire hazard condition warnings in the area. The state-sanctioned monopoly adds salt to the wound by raising their rates during the aftermath. Erin Brockovich, longtime nemesis of the utility, makes a cameo during a meeting about the role it played in causing the fire. While it is not in the documentary, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire earlier this year. The specific cause of the fire may have been a downed power line, but the conditions leading up to it were caused by capitalism and corporate irresponsibility. For the past 100 years, timber companies changed the environment as they circumnavigated logging regulations by overfilling the forest.
The wildfire wasn’t just an unnatural disaster. Howard is quick to point out natural conditions caused a perfect storm for the 2018 Camp Fire. The area had a long history of fires. The rainy season which normally started in October had been pushed back to late November, if it came at all. “Rebuilding Paradise” was finished before the pandemic erupted and distracted us from larger catastrophes to come, but there are correlations to be drawn over any kind of national preparedness, whether it comes from ineptitude or willful disregard. There have been so many disasters which have climate change as the root cause: Australian bushfires, floods in Bangladesh, Hurricane Dorian, the closing montage barely has room for them all. “Firefighters are living climate change,” we hear in the documentary.
This is familiar territory for Howard in many ways. He made the 1991 firefighter film “Backdraft,” and has quite a few documentaries under his belt. The director who got his start in Mayberry R.F.D., acting on “The Andy Griffith Show,” excels in stories of Americans fighting immense odds. “Apollo 13,” “Cinderella Man,” and “A Beautiful Mind” are stories of triumph over adversity. Howard doesn’t look away from the losses the people suffered, but he wants to look forward to where they will wind up, and he thinks they will land on their feet. He is more emotional than analytical, preferring to shine his camera on the happiest moments like staging that final high-school graduation on the high school football field. But “Rebuilding Paradise” remains ambivalent about victory. It is about redemption, and that makes it unintentionally scary. He ends the film with shots of the school kids of Paradise raising money for tornado victims in Alabama. It feels like young villagers of the damned are painting murals for the children of the corn. “We aren’t alone in this,” we hear. It is meant as a heartwarming affirmation of the human spirit, but inadvertently carries the dread of a scorched earth.
“Rebuilding Paradise” releases July 31 on VOD.