The firestorm that engulfed the town of Paradise in November 2018, known as Camp Fire, was one of several that ignited on the same day in California. Another, the Woolsey Fire, occurred only a few dozen miles northwest from where I live. I remember driving to work and seeing the billowing, charcoal-black cloud of smoke rising in the near-distance. It was an apocalyptic sight, yet as uncomfortably close as my family’s proximity was to the fire, that’s all it remained for us – a horrific sight. Ron Howard’s documentary, Rebuilding Paradise, portrays the disaster from the perspective of Paradise’s survivors, from the moment the Camp Fire erupted to nine months after its devastating impact. It’s a reminder of human resilience that manages to be both powerful and deeply flawed.
“…portrays the disaster from the perspective of Paradise’s survivors, from the moment the fire erupted to nine months after…”
The film’s first 20 minutes are by far the most intense. Before people knew it, they were “100% surrounded by fire.” At 11 AM, driving through Paradise was like driving through the crimson-black pit of hell. It’s all depicted via visceral shots, caught by fleeing residents. A family prays to God, as the flames approach. After futile attempts to spray the fire down with a gardening hose, a man declares, “Time to abandon ship!” and legs it out of the house. A woman panics in a car, surrounded by a swirling, suffocating inferno.
Howard wisely stays out of the shot for the rest of the film, allowing the town to tell its sad tale. He follows displaced folks to sprawled-out tents and Red Cross shelters, watches them return and go through the remnants of their homes, observes as they try to rebuild a semblance of their past. The palpable empathy and filmmaking savvy come as no surprise from the seasoned director.
"…comes saddled with other staples that go hand-in-hand with the 'Howard' trademark."