Rated PG-13. At Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard Film Center and National Amusements platform.
Lifelong Californian Ron Howard (OK, since he was 4 years old) was probably as shaken as anyone when he first heard about the Camp Fire as it unfolded and saw the pictures coming out of the town of Paradise (pop. 26,218) in Butte County’s Sierra Nevada foothills on Nov. 8, 2018.
Trees exploded, along with propane tanks. Houses were engulfed in fire. Black smoke blotted out the morning sun. Flames were driven by 40 mph winds and moving, according to a comprehensive 2019 story in the New York Times Magazine, at 100 yards per second. The town’s “welcome” sign was ablaze.
People were trapped in traffic jams with smoke and flames on both sides of the roads and windshields in danger of melting. We hear a recording of children sobbing in a backseat. A family cannot reach a grandfather in a wheelchair. Eighty-five people died, including the grandfather. One of the missing has never been found. We see a body bag carried out by coroners and a stag sitting in a front yard, its fur singed.
“Rebuilding Paradise,” Howard’s National Geographic documentary, revisits the catastrophe sparked by the now bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric company, a monopoly that had not upgraded some of its equipment for almost 100 years. In addition to archival footage of the horrors of the event, Howard turns his camera on the survivors, including Woody Culleton, a man who was both the town drunk and later one of the town’s mayors.
We see families, who have lost everything, uprooted. Those who do not have relatives to take them in end up in FEMA trailers miles and miles away from their former homes. Many of these are families with children, who need to go to school. The Paradise school psychologist, a young woman whose house was spared, is told to avoid giving birth for three years due to benzene in the town water supply, a by-product of burned plastics.
Life in the pandemic is hard. But it is nothing like what the people of Paradise experienced, and are still enduring, along with the pandemic.
The former mayor was one of the first to rebuild. But many fear returning to the woodland hills to live. Survivors meet with the real-life Erin Brockovich to discuss PG&E, her former adversary. A young man named Brandon Burke shows us the cherry trees and running creek just outside where his door had been. Michelle John, the town’s school superintendent, arranges for the Paradise high school class of 2019 to graduate on Om Wraith, the tree-encircled football field on which previous classes graduated (the burned trees had to be removed by FEMA first).
North of Sacramento, Paradise (previously Pair-O-Dice and other names), we are reminded, sprung up in the days of the Gold Rush. But it grew beyond its hardscrabble origins. Paradise Police Officer Matt Gates, who could be Ryan Reynolds’ stand-in, tells us what it was like to watch his home burn. Later, he will preside over a Christmas tree lighting at the Paradise skating rink, which survived the fire.
Previously, Paradise would have had 5 inches of rain in the fall. But it had only one-seventh of an inch, and a 5-year drought, both probably the result of climate change.
Howard’s ability to empathize with the citizens of Paradise gives the film its strength and piercing relevance in these dark times. “Rebuilding Paradise” is us.
(“Rebuilding Paradise” contains images of peril and grave danger and profanity.)