The first ten minutes of Rebuilding Paradise are dispatches from hell, consisting only of footage shot by citizens and first responders while a firestorm from the 2018 Camp Fire raged through Paradise, California. A man aims a garden hose at a massive wall of flames, then almost immediately drops it and says, “Nope, sorry, time to abandon ship,” as if apologizing to the inferno itself. An officer tells a woman in her car, “We are 100 percent surrounded by fire.” The woman responds, “Are we gonna die?” A couple sob with relief as they drive out of a burning road and see clear skies ahead, before turning the camera behind them at a blazing sign that reads, “May You Find Paradise to Be All Its Name Implies.”
Ron Howard’s documentary about the fire’s aftermath, which premiered on National Geographic on November 8, is laced with equally brutal moments over its remaining 80 minutes, but it’s often hopeful as well. In the end, 95 percent of the buildings in Paradise were destroyed and 85 people died, while those who survived lived with benzene-poisoned water, indefinite displacement, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film shows locals grappling with the question of whether to rebuild in a high-risk natural disaster area, fighting to hold the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company accountable for starting the fire, and discussing how fire management needs to change. But it’s most effective as a witness to the particular horrors of this disaster, even while acknowledging that the fire is anything but an isolated tragedy.
Rebuilding Paradise is sweeping in every sense, with drone shots of gnarled building remains, interviews with many residents of the small town (population about 20,000), and updates on recovery efforts every three months for the first year after the fire. But it also feels very much like a slice-of-life film, with a focus on the everyday logistics of getting life back to normal. For example: Will it be possible to hold the high school graduation on the school’s football field, even though the surrounding trees are now a safety hazard? How quickly can thousands of people get permits to start rebuilding their houses when Paradise residents usually construct about eight new homes a year? Trauma is constantly in the background of this daily grind. “I work with kids on trauma counseling, which has been tough for me, since I almost died in the fire myself,” says school psychologist Carly Ingersoll. You’ve got to have a cold heart not to feel touched by the resilience depicted here.
Still, the film’s broad scope means Rebuilding Paradise isn’t much use to anyone hoping for a better understanding of what caused the fire and what we can learn from it. We see some of the anger directed at PG&E but don’t hear about the company’s long history of red flags in failing to prevent wildfire ignitions from power lines. We hear ever so briefly from Danny Davis, a Hupa fire and fuels field technician who mentions how his own community has long conducted prescribed burns, but the film doesn’t go much further into fire policy. And we spend some time with former mayor Woody Culleton as he pushes to rebuild his home, as well as other residents who are struggling with whether or not to rebuild. But again, it would require another documentary to tackle all the complexities around rebuilding or developing in areas that are at high risk for natural disasters. For that reason, the movie pairs well with the book Fire in Paradise by Guardian reporters Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano. Their ticktock of the events slows down to explain a lot of this background, along with details that only make the film’s visuals more terrifying, like the fact that at one point the firestorm was moving as fast as 21 miles per hour—while evacuees were stuck in traffic on the way out of town.
Rebuilding Paradise is still a worthwhile watch for its emotional impact. School superintendent Michelle John works to make sure that (spoiler alert) the high school seniors can indeed graduate on their football field, as always, and we see their moving ceremony. The community spirit really crests toward the end, when Culleton presents a neighbor with a rebuilt home and Paradise High School students raise money for tornado victims in Alabama because they now know how it feels to live through a natural disaster. For all its inspirational moments, the documentary’s message about the future—for Paradise and the rest of the world—is unvarnished. As the final moments of the film remind us, climate change is making devastation of this scale the new normal. “I hate this frickin’ view,” says John, who spends most of the documentary working relentlessly to cheer up her colleagues and students, while looking out over the town in a moment of despair. “Wouldn’t it be nice just to wake up and have this be a bad dream and have no burnt-down crap everywhere?”