The first nine minutes of Ron Howard's Rebuilding Paradise are among the most harrowing I've ever seen in a documentary. It consists of footage from inside the massive 2018 fire that destroyed virtually the entire town of Paradise, CA, displacing 50,000 people in the process. The sky is dark at 11:30 in the morning, trees are on fire, sparks fly across the road, and fleeing cars are backed up, leaving some people trapped with flames closing in on them. We all heard the story on the news at the time, yet seeing what it looked like to the citizens who survived it twists your stomach into a knot.
With that established, Howard goes on to show what happened in the year afterward. The fire, which was caused by faulty PG&E equipment, destroyed countless houses, businesses, and schools. More than 80 individuals perished. Several townspeople – the superintendent of schools, the former mayor, a local cop, etc. – are adamant about returning and starting anew. For months, however, they can't even go through the wreckage because FEMA has to clear the area. Now-homeless families move into FEMA facilities or rent RVs. Vacant mall spaces become makeshift classrooms.
Rebuilding Paradise explores the toll the fire took on residents. The high school seniors, for example, want to have their graduation ceremony on the football field so they can have a sense of normalcy, although it might not be safe. The stress of trying to scrape by in the aftermath causes some relationships to strengthen, but others to crumble. Especially touching is how the youth are looked after. The school psychologist, who barely survived, pushes her own trauma aside to be there for students.
What shines through is that the folks who lived in Paradise adore it there. Many of them use their insurance money to build new homes on the exact same spot where their old ones burned down. Regular community events keep the connections alive. In focusing on the people, Howard has made a film that celebrates the indomitable spirit this community has. When faced with an unfathomable tragedy, they don't give up, they rise from the ashes – literally.
A little time is spent on the cause of the fire, including a tense scene where a PG&E representative is sent to offer the company's apologies, and on some of the measures taken to prevent another such calamity. Howard also includes important material on climate change and how it's making the severity of forest fires greater. That stuff is secondary to the human tale, though. Rebuilding Paradise is ultimately about the concept of home. Despite death and destruction, the residents of Paradise committed to making their home thrive once again. Why? Simple: because they love it.
This emotionally potent documentary is an admiring tribute to their fortitude.
Rebuilding Paradise is rated PG-13 for intense scenes of peril, thematic elements and some strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.