Director: Ron Howard
Runtime: 90 minutes
Kayla Cox displays the pitifully small remnants of her life in Paradise, Calif.: A tiny angel figurine and a John Wayne shot glass.
“I probably had 70 different unique shot glasses,” she says in Rebuilding Paradise. “And only one survived, and it was John Wayne. Which makes me happy, because I just think that he should’ve been the one to survive.”
Watching Rebuilding Paradise, a new National Geographic documentary directed by Ron Howard, you get the feeling that John Wayne would be proud. The town was—and is—filled with plenty of survivors.
On Nov. 8, 2018, a fire roared through a picture-perfect part of northern California and almost obliterated Paradise—a city of more than 26,000 people. The blaze killed 85 and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings. What was once a beautiful, thriving, tight-knit community was reduced to ash in an afternoon.
How can a community come back from such utter devastation? Rebuilding Paradise reveals the answer: One tiny, painful step at a time.
Howard lays out the story chronologically, walking us through the anatomy of the fire: It started out as just a small-acreage hot spot sparked by a faulty transmission line. But fanned by high winds and five years of drought, the blaze exploded. What immediately follows is what I think is some of the most terrifying footage I’ve ever seen in a documentary: Paradise residents recording their town’s immolation as they try to escape. At one juncture, a couple looks as if they’re driving through hell.
When the fire finally swept by, there was little left. Even the houses still standing were uninhabitable: The power was gone, the water was poisoned, the land itself was unsafe.
One woman, just days later, acknowledges the flood of donations. “There’s been such an outpouring of help and support and food,” she says, “people bringing coats and umbrellas, and all those things are so helpful. But at the end of the day, I have nowhere to go.”
But slowly, as the doc walks us through a year’s worth of sometimes frustratingly slow progress, the town begins to grow back. The first new building permits are issued in March. Paradise High School seniors graduate on schedule—and on their own beloved grounds.
True to the documentary’s title, Paradise is still rebuilding. Howard notes that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, owner of the faulty transmission line, offered a $13 billion settlement for its role in the fire. It talks a bit about the fire’s environmental roots, too, and it even touches on the sensitive question as to whether Paradise should rebuild. The community’s warm, wooded beauty fueled the fire, after all. Some speculate that with climate change, the fires will only continue and grow.
But Howard is less concerned with what caused the fire than how the people responded to it. The buildings might be gone, but the community remains. And for many, Paradise was, is and always will be home.
Rebuilding Paradise will air on National Geographic Nov. 8, on the fire’s two-year anniversary.
Written by Paul Asay