Rebuilding Paradise exhibits an idyllic town's resilience to rise from the aftermath of 2018 Camp wildfires

Rebuilding Paradise, a documentary directed by Ron Howard, focuses on the colossal cleanup and rebuilding efforts after the 8 November, 2018, California wildfires that killed 85 people and destroyed some 18,000 buildings.

Ragini Daliya February 08, 2021 18:50:14 IST
Rebuilding Paradise exhibits an idyllic town's resilience to rise from the aftermath of 2018 Camp wildfires

A still from Rebuilding Paradise | Image from National Geographic website

In the opening sequence of National Geographic documentary Rebuilding Paradise, a couple is struggling to drive out of a raging firestorm. The harrowing dashcam and phone video shows the fire approaching and then engulfing buildings, trees and automobiles. Within moments, car edges through the thick black smoke, nothing in sight other than the clogged roads and blazing red.

"I am scared. I am scared to touch the windowpane because it might melt any second now," we overhear the driver. However, the most chilling thing is the soundtrack — 911 calls of people begging for help.

Directed by Ron Howard, Rebuilding Paradise follows the terrifying apocalyptic firestorm of 8 November, 2018 that overtook the small town of Paradise, California, displacing some 50,000 residents and destroying 95% of local structures. The documentary details the year that followed as the town attempts to come back from the devastation.

The next morning, long aerial shots reveal of what's left behind. Rubbles, ashes, memories. 18,000 buildings were reduced to outlines of ash on the ground. And 85 people lost their lives.

Rebuilding Paradise exhibits an idyllic towns resilience to rise from the aftermath of 2018 Camp wildfires

A still from Rebuilding Paradise | Image from National Geographic

Further, it follows several wildfire survivors, bureaucratic officers, and residents as they piece their lives back together and offers signs of the town’s resilience despite many uncertainties about its future. While it touches upon the failings of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., the utility whose equipment sparked the wildfire and changing climate conditions that caused the flames to spread at extreme rates, the documentary mainly focuses on the emotional toll of rebuilding.

It includes observations from the perspective of the people who actually live in town, would like to continue even after the catastrophe, and shuns away from the newsy testimonials (apart from once when former US President Donald Trump surveyed in and referred to the town as “Pleasure” on national TV).

We meet reformed town drunk Woody Culleton, who build a life, family in Paradise and was also elected as a mayor once. We are also introduced to Matt Gates, a local police officer who tears in as he recounts the wildfire day and then eventually holds a mini-Christmas celebration to build community cheer. Michelle John, local superintend of schools, is keen on building her schools for she knows a country is strong only with a functional school system. She, along with a supportive team, arranges makeshift classrooms at warehouses and vacant mall spaces for the kids.

While the documentary is certainly about a major crisis, it is only impactful due to the aching humane stories, 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? When will the town’s water system be completely cleared of chemicals introduced due to the fires?

Rebuilding Paradise exhibits an idyllic towns resilience to rise from the aftermath of 2018 Camp wildfires

A still from the documentary | National Geographic

Like most nature documentaries, Rebuilding Paradise also leaves behind a cautionary tale, for it's not just one story of one community. There are big societal, historical, capitalistic and phytogeographical reasons why such disasters now happen with increasing frequency. While one awaits change, and hopefully there might be one, it is rather best understood that there's long before we could live in paradise again.

John, who spent most of the documentary working relentlessly to cheer up her colleagues and students, decides to retire after a year from the tragedy. “Wouldn’t it be nice just to wake up and have this be a bad dream and have no burnt-down crap everywhere?”, she says as the documentary concludes with a montage of brimming natural disasters from across the world.

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