Picking up the Pieces After a Disaster

Climate chaos is the through line in Rebuilding Paradise, but the documentary also offers tales of resilience and community.

NOTE: During National Fire Prevention Month through Oct. 31 National Geographic Documentary Films will donate $1 of each sale or rental of Rebuilding Paradise to California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund in support of the Butte Strong Fund (up to $50,000). For more info see: Rebuilding Paradise.

Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise is a tour de force depicting how a small town is engulfed and impacted by the climate crisis. This well-directed National Geographic Documentary Films production opens with sweeping aerial vistas of Paradise, a scenic, rustic haven in Northern California, and a glimpse of a wooden welcome sign stating: “May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.” However, the Arcadian ambiance is swiftly swept away in a lengthy, harrowing sequence showing how the 2018 Camp Fire rapidly spread through the town, transforming Paradise into hell on Earth.

fire damage in paradise, california
Piles of debris from burned buildings close to an antique mall in Paradise, CA. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

We hear a puzzled resident comment, “Honey, there’s stuff falling from the sky,” as the fire begins to sweep through the town, laying waste to homes, buildings, wildlife and landscape. We see frenzied families trying to flee in cars but getting ensnared in a fiery traffic jam and hospital patients in wheelchairs being evacuated. Embers and sparks whip through the air. A terrified townswoman cries, “Please pray for us. We need your help, Lord.” Firefighters desperately try to battle the blaze burning wildly out of control. A quartet of horses trot by. An astonished voice remarks, “It’s 11:38 a.m. and this is what it looks like” – pitch black due to thick smoke.

The November 8, 2018 Camp Fire “killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 residents and destroyed 95 percent of local structures. It was the deadliest fire in this country 100 years and the worst ever in California’s history in terms of damage to life and property,” according to press notes. Howard, who won a Best Director Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind (2001) and an Oscar-nomination for Frost/Nixon (2008), masterfully helms Rebuilding Paradise, combining his camera crew’s original cinematography with TV and radio news clips, cellphone footage, material shot by local filmmakers, home movies and vintage films.

“From the moment the crisis began… Howard led a filmmaking team to the city and would go on to spend a year with Paradise residents, documenting their efforts to recover what was lost,” says the film’s press notes. Although he’s best known as an actor and for directing big budget Hollywood features such as Splash, Cocoon and Apollo 13, Howard has also lensed a number of documentaries. “The news of Paradise was of extra interest to me because I have a lot of relatives in Redding, California, and they’d had the Carr Fire up there just several months before” in 2018, he says. Howard’s longtime partner since Night Shift (1982), Brian Grazer, produced Rebuilding Paradise.

Some famous people are quickly glimpsed in Rebuilding Paradise, including California’s then-Governor Jerry Brown, current Governor Gavin Newsom, and President Trump, who in front of the press makes a typically foolish Freudian slip, calling Paradise “Pleasure” during his brief visit to the disaster scene. Erin Brockovich — the consumer and environmental advocate who Julia Roberts portrayed in a 2000 movie based on Brockovich’s courtroom crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric for leaking toxic Chromium 6 into Hinkley, California’s groundwater – addresses a mass meeting at Paradise after it’s revealed that sparks from PG&E transmission lines started the Camp Fire.

reconstruction work at paradise, california
Steve “Woody” Culleton rebuilds his home in Paradise, CA after losing it to the 2018 Camp Fire. On the whole the film focuses on ordinary people, on how Paradise’s devastated townsfolk are trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

But on the whole the film focuses on ordinary people, on how Paradise’s devastated townsfolk are trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, battling displacement, economic hardship, government bureaucracy.

Rebuilding Paradise personalizes the tragedy with a number of real life, finely etched characters. There’s 74-year-old Woody Culleton, the town’s former mayor, who he says, rose “from town drunk to town mayor,” and persists in constructing a new house to replace the one burnt to the ground in the conflagration. There’s the superintendent of the Paradise Unified School District, Michelle John, who realizing education is a backbone of the community, campaigns to restore learning and to ensure Paradise High seniors can graduate at their beloved if damaged campus. We learn about policeman Matt Gates, whose devotion to the town is admirable but takes a toll on his own family, and school psychologist Carly Ingersoll who helps students cope with trauma, even as she must deal with her own personal anxieties, including delaying having children due to Paradise’s poisoned water.

The eco-destruction wrought by the Camp Fire includes the release of toxic chemicals in emissions, notably benzene, which can cause cancer. Not only can’t survivors drink the water, but they can’t bathe in it either, and similar to at Flint, Michigan, residents must use bottled water.

The climate crisis, of course, is the central theme of the film. Firefighters, who are on the frontline of dealing with the wildfires made worse by global warming, assert: “We are living climate change.” A former fire chief insists that the Camp Fire wasn’t caused “just by utilities,” but because we’re undergoing “more extreme conditions,” including drought in a region that hasn’t experienced rain for years.

In addition to its horrifying opening Rebuilding Paradise includes a jarring, jaw-dropping montage of extreme weather events wreaking havoc around the planet, with floods, fire and more at Australia, South Africa, Bangladesh, Japan, and beyond. These scenes of global climate mayhem are accompanied by chilling organ music.

Through all their travails the townspeople of Paradise remain resilient. Towards the documentary’s end, high school students raise money for the 2019 tornado victims of Beauregard, Alabama, saying: “We understand how they feel.”

Oklahoma-born Ron Howard first attained fame as a child star in 1960 playing Opie in the popular sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, set in another slice of Americana, the fictional village of Mayberry, North Carolina. The actor/director is clearly sympatico with the inhabitants of the true-to-life town established around the time of California’s Gold Rush, where the biggest cultural happening is the annual Gold Nugget Days event, featuring a man as a raccoon-garbed mascot, beauty queens and a parade with horseback riders, floats and riflemen. But as Howard’s documentary vividly, dramatically shows, not even idyllic, remote, rural retreats of natural beauty are refuges immune from the ravages of the climate crisis.Rebuilding Paradise is currently available via the Apple TV app, Amazon Prime Video, GooglePlay, Vudu, Comcast and other digital platforms and premieres on television Nov. 8, the second anniversary of the Camp Fire, on the National Geographic Channel. ​

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