This documentary, to be released soon, starts with great on-the-scene footage from various sources that illustrate the darkness, heat and flames that overcame Paradise, Calif. early in the morning on Nov. 8, 2018. By noon, the city had been reduced to ashes and 85 of its residents had died.
Director Ron Howard must have decided almost immediately to make this documentary, which observes grieving citizens over the next six months as they resolve to restore what they have lost. It highlights a former mayor, the school superintendent, a police officer and several families.
It would require a heart of stone not to be moved by the grief and dislocation these people experience, and by their resolution to restore a century-old town set on a beautiful ridge between two large stands of forest and next to the Feather River.
But the story deserves more information.
— The movie discusses, briefly, that fire seasons are longer now. Why that is and what to do about it are not discussed.
— The fire was started by a spark from a PG&E power line that was strung in 1921, and people are understandably furious at the utility. (I have been told that standing under some of those wires will make your body thrum and vibrate.) But besides PG&E, California has a Public Utility Commission. Did that PUC evaluate plans and budgets for maintenance of long-range electrical wiring when considering rate proposals? Wildfires are not a new threat.
— The Federal Emergency Management Agency apparently denied physical clearance or financial settlements to people who put trailers on their now-empty lots or who didn’t go through approved processes for rebuilding. In the movie it sounds petty and makes people angry. What’s with that?
— The Paradise event was part of a much larger fire known as the Camp fire. The Los Angeles Times published this nice series of charts and maps that illustrate how devastating that fire was. It’s worthwhile context not provided in the film.
The movie is not maudlin, and it is straightforward and honest about the people whose stories it tells. I just wish it had a little more meat on its bones.
Ron Howard also directed Backdraft, a 1991 feature about two firefighters. I never saw that movie, but Roger Ebert, the popular movie critic who died in 2013, had reservations that are similar to my own here. He wrote this:
“Never before in the movies have I seen fire portrayed by such convincing, encompassing special effects. Unfortunately, they are at the service of an unworthy plot.”
The Idiosyncratist cares about these things.
In September 2017, 10 months before Paradise burned, I wrote The West Is on Fire after a trip to Washington and Idaho.
In October, the Tubbs fire, set off by private electrical equipment outside a house, killed 24 people as it raged for days across almost 40,000 acres in California’s Napa-Sonoma region. It destroyed 5,600 structures, with the greatest damage in the city of Santa Rosa.
In November 2017, two fires in eastern Tennessee killed 14 people, burned almost 18,000 acres in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and destroyed 2,500 homes in towns surrounding the park.
Also in 2017, I wrote about Land on Fire, an absorbing study of wildfire over time and in the current moment.
Next up for me is 1491, which uses history, archeological data and soil studies to describe the much larger Native American population and how those groups used the land and its resources for their own purposes.