On November 8, 2018, a fire began in the forests near Paradise, California, two hours north of Sacramento. It swept in that morning and engulfed 95% of the structures in the town, including 11,000 homes. By the time it was over, 85 people were dead, making it the most fatal fire in the US in a century.
“Rebuilding Paradise” is Ron Howard’s documentary of that fire, and the impact it had on the community. It includes truly scary footage shot by fleeing residents on their phones, stuck in long lines of traffic with flames and thick smoke surrounding them. It’s a perspective that puts the viewer more in the midst of the horror than any TV news report did.
Over the course of 95 minutes, “Rebuilding Paradise” introduces us to some of the town’s longtime residents. With their homes and businesses gone, many of them left forever. But there were those who stayed and tried to patch together a new life, including the superintendent of schools — who had to decide where the kids could go in a district that lost eight of its nine buildings. Watching it in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is to see some of the same conversations playing out again.
Once Pacific Gas and Electric was identified as the culprit — the company’s faulty power line had sparked the blaze — it wasn’t long before lawyers (including Erin Brockovich) became involved, and the movie captures some of those scenes. It also follows through as PG&E filed for bankruptcy and finally settled for billions of dollars.
Unfortunately, “Rebuilding Paradise” doesn’t include nearly enough discussion about the impact of climate change, which allowed the fire to spread so quickly, nor the over-development of residential areas that were built with no concern for the fire hazard. Still, it is a compelling look at how nature can upend the lives and fortunes of people at a moment’s notice. It will be quite a while before I can get out of my head those images of families in cars, with kids in the back seats, trying to escape the inferno that threatened to overrun them.
I give “Rebuilding Paradise” an 8 out of 10.