The hard-fought recovery of a small town devastated by the 2018 wildfire.
It’s always the temptation of earnestly well-intentioned documentarians to reduce real-life stories about social issues to didactic lessons and lists of statistics.
But to properly convey the full scope of the aftermath of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, the folks at the National Geographic Channel knew they would require a filmmaker who could find the powerfully dramatic narrative within the facts.
Fortunately, they hired director Ron Howard, who had already worked with NatGeo on the 12-episode first season of the documentary TV series “Breakthrough” in 2015, and who knows how to recount history on screen, as proven by 1995’s “Apollo 13.”
Given Howard’s gift for capturing the terrifying power of uncontrolled fires, as seen in the 1991 firefighting epic “Backdraft,” it’s no surprise that the opening of “Rebuilding Paradise” amounts to a self-contained short film in its own right.
Howard ramps up the suspense as he builds to the Nov. 8, 2018, start of the incongruously named “Camp Fire” that devastated the rural California town of Paradise.
Audio from radio and TV news broadcasts, issuing warnings of potential wildfire conditions, gives way to 911 calls and emergency channel communications between increasingly desperate first responders.
Howard likewise interweaves dash-cam footage from police and fire vehicles with cell phone videos from residents fleeing their homes, to show midday skies turned pitch black by smoke choking the skies, with the only illumination left being the rapidly spreading fires that turned the town of Paradise into a literal vision of Hell.
This segment only takes up the first 10 minutes of this 90-minute film, and yet, its specter haunts everything that follows, as Howard spends the next 80 minutes guiding us, month by month, through the town of Paradise’s year of recovery that followed.
Throughout this film, Howard is savvy enough to identify individuals who are able to represent key parts of this close-knit community, so he can get out of their way and allow them to tell their own stories.
We meet the former town drunk who became the town mayor, who stubbornly builds a new house in the same town because he’s in his 70s and has decided he’s too old for anywhere else to feel like home.
The PTSD of the wildfire’s survivors is highlighted with interviews and candid clips of those who have themselves lost their homes and possessions, such as the school psychologist, as they strive to help their fellow townsfolk heal.
The emotional toll on the overworked school superintendent, and on a family-man police officer who organizes events to bring the community together, exacts a personal cost on both of them, months after the fire, that neither could have predicted.
And as harrowing as the footage of the fire itself is, Howard delivers a gut-punch with the spectacle of the massive tent cities, rows of trailers and RVs, and community buildings filled with wall-to-wall spare mattress beds, as neighboring school districts and even shopping malls struggle to make room for the displaced students of Paradise.
Having covered the Oso slide of 2014 as a newspaper reporter, I recognized the frustrations of the town’s residents, as they were told that any federally funded cleanups would require them to vacate the properties to which they’d only recently returned, and as they vented at representatives of Pacific Gas & Electric for how the power company’s negligence had contributed to what local firefighters explained was a “perfect storm” of conditions to foster the wildfire in the first place.
And having followed the progress of local school districts in East Jefferson County in the wake of COVID-19, I also recognized the resigned disappointment of the Paradise High School students who said they felt robbed of their senior year.
It’s heartening to see the Paradise High School Class of 2019 graduate from the school’s athletic field, as their predecessors had done, and it’s even more uplifting to see the school’s students donating what little money they had to the victims of the 2019 tornado outbreak in Alabama.
However, with a concluding jump-cut montage of natural disasters elsewhere that have followed those events, Howard hammers home the point that climate change will continue to ensure that what’s past is merely prologue.
“Rebuilding Paradise” is streaming at the Rose Theatre at RoseTheatre.com.