At 1:38am Nov. 8, 2018, a smoke filled road with bumper-to-bumper traffic, surgeons in the middle of procedures, abandoned cars and animals fleeing in search of shelter was the reality of residents engulfed in a devastating firestorm terrorizing the picturesque city of Paradise, California. It was the deadliest U.S. fire in 100 years and the worst EVER in California’s history killing 85 people, displacing 50,000 residents and destroying 95% of local structures. Why? An electrical fire at a camp site.
Academy Award Winner Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise, illustrates a story of resilience in the face of tragedy, as a community comes together recovering what was lost and begins the task of rebuilding their beloved town and their lives. Howard reveals unbelievable footage sharing the vantage point from a car full of occupants desperately trying to flee through raging flames looking like what any one of us would imagine hell to be – yet this was not a Hollywood film. It was their frightening reality with an aftermath of 85 people dying in cars, as thousands of acres burned, coroners searching and recovering bodies like an apocolypse. All of this is just within the first ten minutes of this riveting doc.
Paradise is a 100 year-old prospecting town whose Mayor was the former town drunk. A town where hundreds of families were born and raised knowing no other life than what they built for themselves. Watching residents dwell with uncertainty, living in tents and shelters, while FEMA dragged their feet and a President so out of touch and unconcerned he couldn’t even be bothered to even address the town by the right name (he called it Pleasure) was painful to witness. Finally being able to re-enter 30 days later, many found their lives and homes in ashes with 8 out of 9 school structures destroyed. Benzine chemicals in the water system made it impossible to shower or cook, yet PG&E was continuously unresponsive until Erin Brockovich hopped onto the scene assisting residents with a 14.5 billion settlement nearly a year later. Howard sheds light on the how the logging industry of the 1800’s grossly effects forest structures changes, ultimately resulting in fire hopping. Wildfires occur because our government has cut funding for those manning the Los Angeles Forest by not replacing tress having been cut, leaving brush waiting to catch fire and spread.
Never have I ever witnessed a town pull each other up and fight like their lives depended on it. Images of parades for the annual Golden Nugget celebration while crews were still cleaning up debris, watching residents abandon their beloved town, the struggling sense of normalcy for the remaining school children from their educators and one loss of life the day after graduating the class of 2019 were heartbreaking at best.
Paradise was quintessential small town America with 26.5K residents who moved there not because they had to, but because they wanted to. It’s a reminder of what humanity looks like when all else feels and looks hopeless. While processing their own grief and loss of what once was, residents bonded together to send a hope lifeline out to the citizens of Beauregard, Alabama who had just ben devastated with a hurricane. If we are to learn nothing else from this tragedy, it is to remember that we are all human beings made much stronger by standing together than part. Ron Howard is a masterful director and never disappoints with the lens of consideration and human kind he bring to every cinematic project as illustrated thought his work with Rebuilding Paradise which is streaming now on National Geographic. For more information and if interested in donating assistance, here are some organizations…
The Paradise Rotary Foundation is a 501(c)3 charitable foundation, established in 2009 as a means to receive and distribute funds to support community projects and organizations. The Foundation’s mission is to financially assist non-profits whose efforts improve the quality of life in Paradise. The Foundation’s present focus is on the rebuilding and re-population of Paradise following the Camp Fire.
The Butte Strong Fund is a partnership of the North Valley Community Foundation, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Aaron Rodgers NorCal Fire Recovery Fund. It is focused on long-term rebuilding and funds projects and organizations within five focus areas: housing, health and wellness, education, community development, and business recovery.