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Rebuilding Paradise

Rebuilding Paradise

Ron Howard, director
NatGeo
2020
95 minutes

On 8 November 2018, residents of the town of Paradise, California, evacuated through a forest of flames. Although it was past 9 a.m., the sky was black from the fire that had traveled 8 miles in just a few hours and now completely surrounded the town. The aftermath of the Camp Fire, as documented in Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise, is a portrait of staggering destruction. Empty concrete pads mark the former sites of houses, among the 18,000 structures obliterated. Sparse old-growth trees stand above the ruins of the 100-year-old town, their green crowns the only reminder that the scenes were filmed in color rather than tones of ash.

Paradise is the kind of close-knit town where everyone turns out for a parade or a funeral. Howard’s privileged access and the film’s immersive perspective make every new trauma feel more harrowing and every victory more ascendant as Paradise inches back toward normalcy. The film captures residents’ deeply personal stories as they scatter to surrounding communities in the fire’s immediate aftermath and wrestle with the decision to return or move elsewhere. Is it worth it, they ask, to rebuild in a town with toxic benzene in the water supply that will take years to purge, a century-old utility infrastructure in disrepair, and onerous government directives that nag the physically broken and financially broke community?

National Geographic/Pete Muller

Howard treats the critical themes of land management and climate change with a gentler touch that reaches a crescendo late in the film. Ghosts of century-old mismanagement still haunt the forests around Paradise, and when coupled with long-term drought, they create perfect conditions for firestorms.

Rebuilding Paradise and the disaster it chronicles will deservedly get a lot of attention; Howard is a well-known filmmaker, who crafts an engrossing, personal, and emotionally raw story. Yet as the frequency of climate-fueled disasters increases worldwide, most of these stories will drift into obscurity, becoming the problems of voiceless people in distant places. Rebuilding Paradise challenges us to see ourselves in climate refugees and to reject the illusion that catastrophic events only happen somewhere else.

About the author

School of Biological Sciences, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA