As America’s west coast continues to burn, this Ron Howard-directed documentary tells of the aftermath of the 2018 wildfires in Paradise, California. At the time it was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. Paradise first entered the international consciousness via a Trumpian gaffe that seemed to encapsulate the administration’s casual indifference to climate change; the president referred to the town as “Pleasure” while touring the devastation. That clip is featured again here, this time utterly drained of even the bitterest humour by the harrowing images that precede it.
Footage garnered from emergency response vehicle dashcams and survivors’ mobiles shows the now-familiar ash clouds, orange skies and deadlocked queues of fleeing traffic – no less shocking for that familiarity. In one remarkable shot, four horses gallop away from the inferno, as if having already abandoned the four horsemen in their haste to escape the apocalypse. The irony is stark: Paradise sure looks a lot like hell.
It is the small-town heroes who are ultimately the film’s centre, however. These include square-jawed local cop Matt Gates, tireless school district superintendent Michelle John and the town-drunk-turned-town-mayor Woody Culleton (how’s that for living out the American Dream?). At one point the real-life Erin Brockovich even pops up to lend support to a class action suit. These displaced characters from a Frank Capra movie are now just displaced; scattered across the state, living half-lives in motels and trailers, while they await any news.
Rebuilding Paradise might easily have blazed with righteous fury, but its conclusions are quieter and bleaker. There are big societal, historical and pyrogeographical reasons why such disasters now happen with increasing frequency. But none of that is the fault of these good people. They just want to go home.