Review: ‘Rebuilding Paradise,’ starring Michelle John, Steve ‘Woody’ Culleton, Carly Ingersoll and Matt Gates

August 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Rebuilding Paradise” (Photo by Noah Berger)

“Rebuilding Paradise”  

Directed by Ron Howard

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A devastating wildfire nearly destroys the California city of Paradise, and the people affected have to fight to rebuild their lives while dealing with bureaucracy from the government and from the energy company Pacific, Gas & Electric, which was largely blamed for causing the fire.

Culture Audience: “Rebuilding Paradise” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in stories about how people recover from disasters.

Mauny Roethler in “Rebuilding Paradise” (Photo by Pete Muller/National Geographic)

What do you do when most of your city has burned down in a devastating fire? The documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” shows how people of the city of Paradise, California, had to cope with this trauma, after Paradise was nearly destroyed by wildfire that began on November 8, 2018. The wildfire (called the Camp Fire) killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 residents in Paradise and surrounding cities, and destroyed 95% of local structures—making it the worst fire disaster in California history.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard directed “Rebuilding Paradise” to show what happened in Paradise in the year after the disaster occurred. The documentary is filmed in a very conventional cinéma vérité style that fortunately is not cluttered with commentaries from people outside of the Paradise community. Howard respectfully lets the survivors express their feelings and open up about what they are going through, without trying to exploit them or manipulate any outcomes.

The movie begins with raw video footage taken of people trying to escape the fires, which literally surrounded several areas of Paradise. It’s harrowing to watch people’s fear and anxiety and to see the blazing infernos that they had to get through in order to survive. Phone services (land lines and mobile phones) weren’t working. And it was dangerous to breath the noxious, smoke-filled air.

Some people who took videos while they were in their cars didn’t know if they would make it out alive. Many people just barely made it out with just the clothes on their backs, while others who weren’t so lucky were trapped and lost their lives. “Rebuilding Paradise” doesn’t have any gruesome footage of people getting physically hurt or dying, but it gives viewers some idea of how terrifying the ordeal was for the people who experienced it.

What caused this disaster? Faulty and outdated equipment (specifically, an electric transmission line) from Pacific, Gas & Electric (PG&E), the main energy company in California, has been named as the main culprit. The Paradise area had also experienced a five-year drought. And on the day of the fires, winds reached about 40 miles per hour. And climate change/global warming made the area’s environment extremely vulnerable to wildfires.

“It really was the perfect storm,” says the Paradise Police Department’s John Singler in the documentary. Paradise Police Department’s Sean Norman adds, “It didn’t matter if we had a thousand fire engines on the ridge that day, this [disaster] was going to happen.”

“Firefighters are living climate change. It’s staring them at them in the face every day,” comments Singler. And because of climate change, these kinds of major fire disasters will become more prevalent, according to former Paradise Fire Department chief Ken Pimlott, who says in the documentary that there’s a rising trend of fires “lasting longer and becoming more extreme.”

At the time that the fire disaster happened in November 2018, the city of Paradise had a population of 26,800, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In December 2018, residents were allowed back into the city, after it was deemed safe enough. However, most people who lived in Paradise at the time the disaster happened didn’t want to go back and rebuild their homes. By April 2019, the city’s population had dropped more than 92%, to a little more than 2,000 residents, according to data released by the office of California Governor Gavin Newsom.

The mass exodus had a domino effect on the amount of money and resources that the city of Paradise could expect to get from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies. And it caused a vicious cycle: With a much smaller population, the city would get a lot less money and resources, which would make it more difficult and take longer to significantly recover from the disaster. And without a significant recovery, the city wouldn’t be attractive enough for people to want to live there.

For example, there was a real health danger to living in Paradise after the disaster. Even after the cleanup, the documentary notes that toxic chemicals (especially benzene) from the wildfires still permeated the city’s water supply. People were warned not to drink the city’s tap water. And not even taking showers or baths was considered safe, since many of the chemicals in the tap water have been known to cause cancer.

Carly Ingersoll, a Paradise school psychologist who says she nearly died during the fires, comments in the documentary about how her determination to stay in Paradise has come with a big personal cost: She had been planning to start a family, but was told by her doctor that she shouldn’t have a child as long as she is doing things such as taking showers and baths with Paradise’s tap water.

Ingersoll gets emotional when she also says that she thought that going back to Paradise after the fires would get easier over time, but it’s gotten harder. And because her job is to counsel students who also survived the wildfire disaster, “It’s kind of hard not to get triggered,” she says of reliving the trauma.

Another big problem was Paradise’s devastated school system. The wildfires destroyed eight of the nine schools in Paradise, so the Paradise school district had to scramble to find temporary places to have classes, including shopping malls in nearby cities and donated spaces. It’s an uncomfortable and disruptive way of learning that most parents understandably did not want their children to experience, if these parents were lucky enough to have options.

Teenage students’ perspectives in the documentary are primarily shown through schoolmates Brandon Burke and Zach Boston, who were seniors in high school at the time of the disaster. They are shown going back to the burned-down areas where their houses used to be and expressing wistfulness that Paradise might never be the same again. And on a more immediate level, they also worry that they wont be able to have their graduation ceremony at Paradise High School’s Om Wraith Field, due to government concerns that the field might have dangerous levels of post-wildfire toxins.

Michelle John, who was Paradise’s school superintendent at the time, had the monumental task of leading a team that needed to get Paradise’s education system back on track. The documentary includes a lot of footage of the frustrating bureaucracy, complications and stresses she had to deal with rebuild Paradise’s school system. It’s clear from the footage included in the movie that she has a true passion for education, and is an empathetic leader who can gets results through teamwork

She also has a very even temper, considering all the difficulties she encountered not just on the job but also in her personal life as a disaster survivor. The emotional support that she gets is primarily from her devoted husband Phil, a retired military veteran who says that the fire disaster gave him another type of PTSD. At one point, Phil reminds a stressed-out Michelle that she needs to eat and that whatever problems they have to deal with, their health should come first.

Like most of Paradise’s residents, Michelle and Phil lost their home, so the documentary shows them temporarily staying with Michelle’s cousin Roni Masuda and Roni’s husband. The two cousins had been somewhat estranged until the fire disaster brought them back together again. Michelle also leans on her family when she experiences another tragedy.

The documentary also prominently features Paradise Police Department officer Matt Gates, as he patrols the area and helps residents try to get their lives back on track. One month after the disaster, Gates is shown as one of the chief organizers for a much-needed community event for the December holidays. Matt and his wife Tenille, with their movie-star looks and their two adorable young sons, look like they have an ideal family.

However, Tenille says that Matt working very long hours after this disaster (working about 14 hours a day) has put a major strain on their marriage. She says she wishes he could be present for his own family as much has he is for other people. The documentary shows whether or not their marriage survived.

Steve “Woody” Culleton, who was 74 when the fires struck Paradise, is the most colorful character in the documentary. He says when he first moved to Paradise since 1981, he had a very band drinking problem. But he sobered up in 1984, and years later, he became the mayor of Paradise. “I went from being the town drunk to the town mayor,” he quips.

His love of Paradise is so strong that he was determined to rebuild his home and continue to live there, no matter what. A feisty raconteur, Culleton, says that at this point in his life, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him for wanting to rebuild in a city that could be in danger of another fire disaster. He likens it to people who still want to live on the beach Miami, even though it’s a direct target for hurricanes.

Culleton’s experience and wisdom as a former mayor of Paradise is also shown as being helpful when he attends city council meetings and town halls and gives advice to obviously less experienced and less knowledgeable city officials. Jody Jones, who was Paradise’s mayor when this documentary was filmed, is briefly shown in one of these meetings, but she’s not interviewed for the documentary.

Other city officials shown in the documentary include the town council’s Mike Zuccolillo and Melissa Schuster. Also shown briefly in the documentary are California state assemblyman John Gallagher, who represents the city of Paradise; Butte Country district attorney Mike Ramsey; Butte County sheriff Kory Honea; Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of Butte County Fire Safe Council.

The documentary also shows how two young couples and their children were living after the wildfires destroyed their homes and they had no where else to stay. Marcus Nelson and Krystle Young escaped the fires with their three young daughters, with only a few clothes as their possessions. They ended up at a Red Cross shelter in the nearby city of Chico, and the family eventually moved into a FEMA trailer. Kayla Cox and Justin Cox (who have three daughters) also lost their home and ended up renting a small trailer that Justin (who works as a school custodian) said cost more than it cost to rent the house they used to have.

Nelson says what some of the survivors also express in the documentary: No one really knows what it’s like to experience this type of devastation unless they’ve been through it themselves. Nelson comments, “Is was so sad and hurt for the people of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina [in 2005], but it doesn’t really hit you until it affects and hits you in your own backyard.” (Later in the documentary, some Paradise students are shown raising money for victims of the Alabama tornados in 2019.)

Both couples say that wildfire disaster has caused a lot of stress in their marriages. Kayla Cox was born and raised in Paradise, and almost all of her relatives live there, so she says that there is no way she is moving out of Paradise. Meanwhile, her husband Justin says he’s “done with California,” although later it’s shown that he and and Kayla are still together when they move into their new home in Paradise. Young says that she and Nelson broke up “many times” since the wildfire disaster, but they decided to get back together for the sake of their kids. Time will tell if these couples’ relationships will last.

The documentary also includes coverage of PG&E’s legal responsibility and being held accountable for the wildfires that devastated Paradise. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich and attorney Joe Earley are shown leading a town hall meeting with residents to advise them on how to fight for their rights in dealing with PG&E. And the documentary includes a tension-filled town hall where PG&E representative Aaron Johnson faces an angry crowd with canned apologies. (The outcome of Paradise residents’ class-action lawsuit has been widely reported, but won’t be mentioned in this review in case it’s spoiler information for some viewers.)

A scientific point of view about fire prevention is offered by pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder, who says that fires are inevitable, but “we cant vegetation-manage our way out of the problem.” Lunder and fire and fuels field technician  Danny Davis are shown in the documentary setting little fires to a wooded area in Paradise to demonstrate potential weak spots and strong spots in the area, based on the post-disaster terrain.

The word “resilience” is a word that comes up quite a bit in the documentary when survivors talk about what it takes to get through the disaster that they experienced. However, “Rebuilding Paradise” also serves as a warning that what happened to this city in California would not have been as devastating if it had not been for corporate negligence and denial over how the world’s climate is changing. (In the documentary’s end credits, it’s mentioned that “emissions resulting from making this movie were balanced by investments in projects that benefit wildlife, air quality, water and local economies.”)

At the end of the documentary, there’s a connection made between the Paradise wildfires and other devastating environmental disasters that happened during the year that the documentary was made. It’s up to viewers to decide how much these disasters could have been different if people had treated the environment better and what all of that means for any future environmental catastrophes.

National Geographic Documentary Films released “Rebuilding Paradise” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 31, 2020.