Small California town pulls together in ‘Rebuilding Paradise’


“Rebuilding Paradise” arrives at the M.V. Film Center and virtually at on Friday, July 31. This National Geographic documentary describes in vivid detail what happens to the California town Paradise when wildfires strike and destroy the town.

Directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, the film begins with horrifying images of the 40-mile-per-hour winds that led to rampaging flames, smoke, and destroyed homes, even cars — all on Nov. 8, 2018. The community’s Ridgeview High School was gone within a day, and eight out of nine of the community’s schools were razed by the fire. More than 18,000 structures in this community of 26,000 disappeared into flames, and 85 people died. “I don’t see the town coming back,” says Mayor Woody Culleton. “We have nowhere to go.” The region had had no significant rain for a number of years, and according to one resident, it really was the perfect storm. The flames continued to burn for a week.

An assemblyman describes Paradise as a town that had an idyllic beginning 100 years ago. Police Officer Matt Gates reports what it was like to rescue people from the disaster and its aftermath. Viewers see the toll it takes when Gates and his wife divorce. The immolation came from a faulty electric line owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PGEC) that gave off sparks and started the fires. The community sued, and PGEC eventually gave the victims $13.7 billion in restitution.

In the meantime, citizens find respite at the Paradise Recreation Center, and an ice skating rink brings consolation to skaters. “We hug each other more than anything else,” says Michelle John, the superintendent of schools, who is a frequent respondent in the film. A lot of people leave, and others file for bankruptcy. Paradise’s water started as the second cleanest in the state, but the fire releases toxic waste into it. In one heartbreaker, a daughter describes finding her dad with his wheelchair at the bottom of his garden. Activist Erin Brockovich comes to support the community.

What really is to blame is climate change, which led to conditions ripe for disaster. A sad note is that John’s husband died of a heart attack.

What happened to Paradise provides a vivid example of what can occur in similar communities. “Fire doesn’t care what we think,” says one resident. “There’s nothing we can do to keep it from happening.”

The important point is the effort to rebuild, which follows with its accompanying frustrations. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) provides temporary trailers, but requires that the debris be removed before rebuilding can begin. Nevertheless, everyone cheers when Ridgeview High School still holds its graduation in the high school’s sports field.

A pyro geographer explains to the community that the campfire, as it is called, needs to be replanted with the undergrowth removed to prevent another fire. Prescribed burns to prevent another disaster will follow. He suggests it will take five years to restore the community. One positive note is that the community is continuing to hold the annual Gold Nugget Days celebration. Another is to issue the first building permit, followed by a bulldozer digging the foundation for the first new house. Therein lies the power of a community determined to restore itself.

Information and tickets are available for both the Film Center and virtual screenings at