In early November 2018, a wildfire ripped through the California town of Paradise, killing 86 people and destroying more than 18,000 buildings, including, of course, many of the residents’ homes. If you’ve never suffered through a major natural disaster yourself, imagining the emotional—not to mention monetary—cost of such an event is nearly impossible. Ron Howard’s bracing, and sometimes upsetting, documentary Rebuilding Paradise brings the suffering of those who lost so much closer to home. It’s a film that seeks to stoke compassion, an emotion that appears to be in short supply across our nation these days.
The devastating event that came to be known as The Camp Fire—it originated on Camp Creek Road, in Butte County—was caused by a faulty Pacific Gas and Electric transmission line that threw off sparks, quickly setting the forest around it ablaze. The sequence that opens the movie is the most harrowing. The fire was moving so rapidly that when the citizens of Paradise (a town with a population of roughly 26,500) were told they needed to evacuate, there was little time to pack up belongings. Footage shot from vehicles shows a morning sky so blackened with smoke you’d mistake it for midnight. Even more frightening is the sense of the bright orange blaze closing in so quickly, and from all sides. The accompanying audio is particularly disturbing: A woman prays for her home to be spared; another simply sobs. This is the part of Rebuilding Paradise that’s hardest to watch. Though the footage is edited carefully, obviously with an aim to protect victims’ privacy and avoid sensationalism, this opening section is so distressing that it might tempt you to turn away.
But Rebuilding Paradise mostly delivers on the hopeful promise of its title. Howard conducted interviews with those who survived the fires as a way of providing a window into how individuals and communities move forward after a catastrophic event. Many of the survivors found their way to temporary shelters or housing provided by FEMA in communities outside Paradise, and when they were finally allowed to return to their homes—or, more often, the charred sites where their homes once stood—there was little left to salvage. One woman lost every possession except for an angel figurine and a shot glass emblazoned with John Wayne’s face. The glass used to be one of a collection of about 70, though the woman notes that if only one was going to make it through the fire, she’s glad it was Wayne’s.
The fortitude of the people of Paradise—in the face of roadblocks thrown up by government agencies, of PG&E’s disingenuous apologies for the damage and heartbreak caused by their negligence, of a President who referred publicly to their town as “Pleasure” because he couldn’t be bothered to remember the actual name—forms the backbone of Howard’s documentary. There’s Woody Culleton, who moved to Paradise from the Bay Area in 1981. He was an alcoholic at the time, but he sobered up in 1984 and eventually ran for office. “I went from being the town drunk to being the town mayor,” he says. Culleton was one of the first Paradise citizens to be granted a permit to rebuild—and as a tractor breaks ground on his property, he begins to cry. He’s slightly embarrassed, but he acknowledges that all that unexpressed emotion had been backed up for months.
Howard is especially sensitive to the way the community banded together after the disaster, eager to help one another and to get their town back to some semblance of normal. As it stands now, according to Rebuilding Paradise, they’re not even close. Still, they’ve made amazing progress, and they believe so much in their town that they refuse to give up. Howard’s camera follows school superintendent Michelle John as she tries to make sure that all the district’s schoolchildren are accounted for and have a place, temporarily, in one of the nearby schools. And she makes it possible for the high school seniors to graduate on their schoolgrounds, something they’d all hoped for—only to lose her husband to a heart attack a few days after the ceremony. This is the way life works: Being fortunate enough to survive a catastrophic event doesn’t necessarily protect you from future heartbreak. Rebuilding Paradise recognizes that, though it also offers some cautious optimism. This is a movie about how life goes on, in defiance of whatever may have been burned away.