Rebuilding Paradise Review – Haunting Docu-Drama of California’s Deadliest Wildfire

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Rebuilding Paradise, from Imagine Documentaries and National Geographic Films, brings to the screen the gripping story of The Camp Creek Fire, California’s deadliest wildfire, post disaster life for the survivors, and the equally challenging rebuilding process.

Directed by Ron Howard, Rebuilding Paradise weaves in the stories as told by Paradise residents Michelle John, Phil John, Steve "Woody" Culleton, Carly Ingersoll, Zach Boston, Brandon Burke, Matt Gates, Justin Cox, Kayla Cox, Krystle Young, Marcus Nelson and Zeke Lunder.

Rebuilding Paradise begins November 8, 2018 with drone footage of a beautiful northern California countryside, lush landscapes with only over the ground power lines, interrupting the scenery. Radio voice over alerts the audience of the weather conditions for that day, high winds, and high fire warning with a notice that PG&E, will be making the decision to shut off power preemptively.


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Throughout this entire seemingly quaint morning in this Northern California town of Paradise, tucked away in the Sierra Nevada foothills, we see typical small-town life, with school buses, traffic, commuters, families living a normal daily life. It is about 8:15AM.

By 8:30AM a wildfire has been reported, along Camp Creek Road, with fire departments making the quick call indicating “this has potential for a catastrophic event.”

Emergency services calls tell of fire at the end of the driveway, residents just waking up, unaware of the potential devastation, firemen running across tinder filled yard. By 8:32AM, police were driving through neighborhoods sirens blaring issuing mandatory evacuations. Families using garden hoses to fight an unyielding monster “abandoned ship” running to evacuate.

By 9:30AM the town was an inferno. Literally burning to the ground. The local hospital was attempting to evacuate patients, some were in surgery, the intensity of this fire is clearly captured, as voice over continues to inform firefighters to focus only on life rescues, structures loss had ceased to be a priority.

Traffic jams the two roads exiting the town.

BY 11:30AM, the lovely morning, a bright fall day had ceased to exist. The devouring fire raged out of control, the sky was pitch black, houses which lined the roads where consumed with flames, so much so they appeared unreal, waves of structure high flames, multi-colored red tipped, engulfing everything in sight.

Throughout this same time, a family was attempting to escape the town, frenzied fire raged on both sides, the women driving was heard crying in fear, recording the scene as they drove out of the town, pockets of fire jumping the road, igniting the opposite side, surrounding them, with soaring temperatures, fears the tire tread and the windshield would melt.

Just as they questioned their direction, the saw clear sky in the distance. They were among the lucky ones who escaped Paradise that morning.


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Rebuilding Paradise, recently showcased at the AFI Docs Film festival, brought this traumatic nightmare to the public’s attention.

The docu-drama, for anyone who has experienced natural disasters of any kind, surviving the ordeal is only the beginning. By the next morning, the fire had been extinguished.

Drone footage reveals the unfathomable destruction, squared foundations where houses stood the day before were now rows of ash plots. Charred abandoned vehicles lined the roads, burnt downed power lines blocked roadways. The scenes were shocking and traumatizing.

From this point the documentary follows a group of survivors as they deal with the aftermath of the fire. We meet former Superintendent of Paradise Schools, Michelle John, and former Paradise Mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton. We travel the roads with Paradise Police officer, Matt Gates.


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Director Ron Howard captures the intensity of the fire and escape, as we the audience become immersed in the first person accounts, we are on the edge of our seats, in the vehicles dodging the fire pockets, feeling the helplessness, confronting the fears.

Rebuilding Paradise also showcases the aftermath, the recover, rebuild, and hope with moments of great accomplishment. The film is a searing reminder of failure, determination, hope, and a belief in a common goal, a common spirit will do more than the usual in triplicate form beliefs of many agencies.

Moreover, feeling the frustration as once again big business failed to serve those whom they profess, concern.


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Rebuilding Paradise is filled with powerful scenes even post fire. One scene, as these residents, who had been through so much sat quietly, politely in a town hall, listening to a representative from PG&E who knowingly assisted in causing this unfathomable damage and 87 deaths and allowed him the time to talk. It was shocking. Even his feigned, artificial, and insincere, apology. What can words do, fill the air space? Action, which now, of course, they have legally been held responsible, and still of the mentality that money, which is all they could offer, heals all wounds.

According to Wikipedia, "The Camp Creek fire killed 87 and destroyed 19,000 structures with 11,000 homes in Paradise burned to the ground. It was the single most destructive fire in California history and the worst in the United State in 100 years." It has been determined the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) caused the Camp Creek fire.

By the films end we see resilience, affirmation in the human spirit, courage, optimism, and hope. Rebuilding Paradise shows humanity at its worst and at its best.

Rebuilding Paradise, an Oscar bound documentary, is scheduled for release July 31, 2020. See this film!

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