‘Rebuilding Paradise’ chronicles the heroic rebirth of a devastated community

“Rebuilding Paradise” (2020). Cast: Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Michelle John, Phil John, Steve “Woody” Culleton, Carly Ingersoll, Matt Gates, Zach Boston, Brendan Burje, Krystle Young, Marcus Nelson, Justin Cox, Kayla Cox, Zeke Lunder. Director: Ron Howard. Web siteTrailer.

When all is lost, the will to start over is put to the test. For some, it may be too much. But, for others, those who have the fortitude to recover and begin anew, the challenge may be difficult but not insurmountable. So it has been for many of the residents of a community who experienced utter devastation firsthand, a story chronicled in the riveting and moving new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise.”

On the morning of November 8, 2018, life in the small northern California town of Paradise changed forever. During a red flag fire season warning, the unthinkable happened: A spark from a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) transmission line set the surrounding woodland on fire. That initially small blaze, combined with an ample supply of timber that had dried out from years of drought and strong upper winds, quickly spread the fire. As the flames raced toward the historic community, residents had virtually no time to flee for their lives, let alone most of their possessions, leaving their residences behind to be incinerated. And, despite efforts to evacuate, the catastrophe still claimed the lives of 85 people, some of whom were overcome by fire in their vehicles in a desperate attempt to escape.

One of the largest and deadliest wildfires in state history decimates the historic town of Paradise, California in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise.” Photo © by Noah Berger, courtesy of National Geographic.

When the flames were finally extinguished, Paradise had been, for all practical purposes, destroyed. The community’s 26,000 residents soon found themselves displaced, and, with nearly all of the town’s structures obliterated, the fire-weary survivors had nowhere to go. Some fled permanently, while others were fortunate enough to find accommodations with relatives in neighboring towns. But, for the rest, this marked the beginning of a displacement to temporary facilities that would go on for months – or longer.

“Rebuilding Paradise” chronicles the saga of the townsfolk through this harrowing ordeal. Beginning with the tragedy itself, the film graphically depicts the horror of the fire with terrifying footage shot from within the inferno. It then shows the aftermath, both on the ground and from above, of a blaze that unrelentingly ravaged the landscape. But the bulk of the documentary examines how Paradise residents have managed in the time since the disaster – their attempts at coping psychologically, their efforts to begin the rebuilding process, their campaign to seek monetary damages from the utility company responsible for the firestorm (aided by consumer advocate Erin Brockovich-Ellis) and their quest to establish new lives for themselves.

Director Ron Howard tells the story of Paradise through the lens of a number of everyday citizens. There’s Police Officer Matt Gates, who played a pivotal role in helping to evacuate Paradise residents on the day of the fire and in assisting in organizing events to boost the morale of the community after the tragedy. School Superintendent Michelle John and her husband, Phil, chairman of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council, worked tirelessly to help get the town’s schoolchildren into makeshift classrooms and to orchestrate ceremonies for the high school’s graduating seniors. Steve “Woody” Culleton, the 74-year-old self-described town drunk who eventually recovered and went on to become mayor, helped lead the charge for homeowners seeking to rebuild their residences, plowing through the seemingly endless red tape that only compounded an already-difficult situation. School psychologist Carly Ingersoll took on the role of crisis counselor to assist students in coping with their circumstances, a responsibility made more difficult by her own trauma, having nearly perished in the fire herself.

The aftermath of the November 2018 wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California reveals a community in ashes, as seen in the gripping new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

In addition to those who played such crucial roles during and after the ordeal, the film profiles those seeking to shape what’s to come. Graduating high school seniors Zach Boston and Brendan Burke, representatives of what is hoped to be the future of Paradise, introspectively reflect on what they lost – and what they hope to regain – as their community attempts to rebuild. Pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder, who helps manage the surrounding forests, particularly where carefully coordinated controlled burns are concerned, speaks to the importance of astute stewardship of the woodlands that make the area such a desirable place to live – and how to keep it safe from future catastrophes. And then there are the families, represented here by Justin and Kayla Cox and Krystle Young and Marcus Nelson, who have been displaced and are looking to make fresh starts, despite the many hardships they face with living space, employment and even marital discord, traumas brought on by a disaster that they never foresaw.

The film also reveals problems that most viewers probably never thought about. For example, there’s the severe environmental impact that has resulted from the release of enormous amounts of toxic chemicals dispersed by the fire. These substances, such as benzene, have become embedded in the ash that coats the landscape, poisoning the soil and even sinking down into the groundwater, making it unsafe for drinking, showering and cleaning, a problem even affecting the few who were fortunate enough not to have lost their homes in the fire. On top of that, asbestos released from older structures that burned now makes certain parcels of land, such as the site of one of the town’s destroyed schools, too dangerous to enter without hazmat suits. Obviously the cleanup effort here involves more than just the removal of charred debris.

Complicating matters even further are the bureaucratic nightmares that have stifled the rebuilding process. Issues involving FEMA, for example, have hindered the approval of permits for new homebuilding, problems brought about by questions involving regulations and, in turn, the funding to comply with them. Indeed, how can residents begin to move ahead if they can’t even get out of the starting blocks? As if there weren’t enough stress in residents’ lives already.

Paradise Police Officer Matt Gates played a pivotal role in helping to evacuate his community during the deadly wildfire that destroyed the historic northern California town as chronicled in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise.” Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

However, despite these many challenges, there’s always the human spirit to counteract them, and residents certainly have plenty of that in reserve, as evidenced in the film. They know what it was like to have found paradise, and they certainly don’t want to see it lost forever. Rebuilding Paradise may take a Herculean effort, but mankind has done this before – and there’s no reason why it can’t be done again here, making it possible for Paradise to be restored once more.

Throughout history, man has sought to establish a utopian way of living in a setting that reflects those values. And, over the years, a number of films have attempted to depict this undertaking, such as director Frank Capra’s legendary classic, “Lost Horizon” (1937). So it’s indeed quite heartening that the founders of this historic northern California town would choose the name “Paradise” to characterize the effort they undertook in building and growing their community. However, as the devastation of the fire proved, “paradise” is something precious that requires committed protection to preserve and sustain its existence, for it can be all too easily lost and difficult to recapture.

Rebuilding a burned-out community is indeed a daunting task. With roughly 95% of Paradise destroyed, there’s much to be replaced to restore the town to what it once was. Overcoming the grief associated with this loss alone is a feat calling for extraordinary effort. But, as debilitating as this might seem, this tragedy also provides an opportunity for rebirth, a chance to not only re-create the Paradise that was lost, but to make one that’s even better than before, one that learns from the mistakes of the past to usher in a bright future. To some, that may seem unlikely given what the community is up against. But, for others, it’s a venture to be tackled with the same spirit as those who built it in the first place. It’s an endeavor that they believe in, and that’s crucial to their success, for those beliefs are essential in making the outcome happen. They’re the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting the reality we experience, including the paradise that they (and that most of us) claim to seek.

School Superintendent Michelle John joyfully officiates over ceremonies for the 2019 commencement class of Paradise High School, the first group of seniors to graduate after the November 2018 wildfire that destroyed their community, as depicted in “Rebuilding Paradise.” Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

It’s unclear whether or not the residents of Paradise have heard of this philosophy. But, for those who are committed to rebuilding the community – especially those who have already begun taking the steps to make it happen – it’s apparent that they have a good handle on the principles involved in bringing their dream into being. They recognize the value in this undertaking, and they’re dedicated to making it happen, their belief in the notion steadfastly rooted in their consciousness and, subsequently, in their actions.

Taking on a venture like this is staggering. While it’s true that California has experienced some huge and horrendous fires over the years, virtually nothing compares with this blaze. The aftermath of this incident even calls into question the wisdom of building in a fire zone like this. However, as a number of residents point out, is it wise to establish communities in Tornado Alley, along hurricane-prone seacoasts or in known flood zones? We all have to live somewhere, they contend; why should fire risk be considered any more off-limits than the potential damage that can be caused by any of these other disasters?

To rebuild the town in the wake of the fire and to eliminate some of the hazards that contributed to the devastation, those responsible for devising solutions must seek to overcome limitations that may have previously held them back or that they couldn’t see past in coming up with workable answers to these challenges. That’s where beliefs once again play a role. By stretching their vision and looking for previously untried (or even previously unconceived of) ideas, they have an opportunity to overcome the pitfalls of the past and to establish new paths for the future. The residents of Paradise set an inspiring example for those facing similar dilemmas – and opportunities.

Former Mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton rebuilds the home he lost in the firestorm that destroyed the historic northern California town of Paradise, as chronicled in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

It’s also important to note that this is a co-creative effort, one where all the residents of Paradise contribute their thoughts, beliefs, intents, energy and support to rebuild the town. It even includes the input of those who were part of the problem, such as PG&E; after all, the residents of a new Paradise are still going to need electricity, albeit power that’s delivered in a safer manner. For instance, according to a company representative appearing in the film, the antiquated transmission lines that sparked the blaze were built in 1921, and footage shows how easily infrastructural elements like wooden poles in this outmoded system can catch fire. To prevent that from recurring, the company has committed to rebuilding its delivery network with underground lines, a huge and expensive restructuring of its power grid. But, then, tremendous tragedies require tremendous solutions, as this venture illustrates.

This co-creative effort has other dimensions to it as well. In addition to the physical build-out of the community’s homes, businesses and infrastructure, there’s also the quest to seek justice for the damage done by the responsible parties, especially for those families that experienced loss of life. The film illustrates this through one woman’s effort to seek restitution for the loss of her elderly incapacitated father, whose charred wheelchair was found in what was his garden as he made a failed attempt at escape. Conscious creation maintains we’re responsible for what we manifest, including those who run major corporations. Such entities must be held accountable for their actions, especially when they carry consequences that affect others.

In a larger sense, the film also raises the question of global climate change and how it may have contributed to this calamity. While the film doesn’t belabor this point, it nevertheless points out how, as citizens of the Earth, we must all work together in addressing this issue. Using footage from a variety of natural disasters from around the world, the film shows how incidents like the Paradise fire are just one example of the devastation that’s being wrought by these tragedies – and in greater frequency and intensity. If we truly all profess to care about the paradise that is this planet, we had better start getting our acts – and our beliefs – together on this front before it’s too late.

The Cox Family, Justin (left) and Kayla (right), take up residence in a mobile home after the wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California claimed their home, a story chronicled in director Ron Howard’s new documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo by Lincoln Else, courtesy of National Geographic.

To a certain degree, evidence of working on this can be seen in the efforts of pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder, whose controlled burn program is designed to clear the forest floor of underbrush that can easily ignite during wildfires and send embers up into the air where it can ignite flames on mature trees. This may be only one small step, but it’s part of the larger effort that is this co-creative undertaking. It may not seem like much, but everything contributes – and helps – in the greater scheme of things.

While the devastation that came out of this tragedy was indeed staggering, there were the proverbial silver linings, too. For example, when the fire encroached on the home of Michelle and Phil John, they received an invitation to come stay with Michelle’s cousin Roni and her husband, Shin, with whom they had been embroiled in a 20-year family feud – an invitation that came unsolicited from Roni and Shin. Even though the Johns’ home was damaged but left standing, Michelle and Phil accepted the invitation and moved in, ending the feud, healing the old wounds and prompting the two couples to become best friends. Who says something good can’t come out of something bad?

In the end, it’s truly inspiring to see what community residents have undertaken to rebuild their town. It’s a reflection of the pioneer spirit that went into its initial establishment. But, perhaps even more importantly, it’s illustrative of the human spirit that seeks to overcome its adversities, no matter how difficult, to recover our losses and to create anew in the spirit of conscious creation philosophy. And, to put an exclamation point on this effort, the name “Paradise” reinforces what its residents are attempting to build, a name that says it all when it comes to characterizing what they’re genuinely trying to manifest for themselves and their progeny.

Director Ron Howard, in a rare documentary effort, does an excellent job in examining the impact of this deadly wildfire, the widespread fallout that has come in its wake and the heroic campaign to begin again. This heart-wrenching yet hopeful offering details the pain and suffering, along with the little victories, experienced by virtually everyone in the community, as well as their determination to rise from the ashes, literally and figuratively. It’s not often that a documentary will move viewers quite as profoundly as this one does, evoking both tears and joy – and making us appreciate what we have and what we can lose in a heartbeat. “Rebuilding Paradise” is easily one of Howard’s best productions in quite a long time and a film well worth seeing. The picture is available for first-run online streaming and in limited theatrical screenings.

The power to overcome can be quite formidable, greater than many of us know, especially when we put our minds (and our beliefs) to it. Our resilience under such duress is a testament to the power behind our ability to create, even under the most dire circumstances. There’s a Paradise that exists within each of us, and it’s possible to bring it forth into being if we believe in the notion. The residents of a small California town are proving that, showing the way for the rest of us and, despite the challenges involved – and succeeding.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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