With Australia shocked by infernal bush fires, Jakarta under siege from the worst floods in decades, and Alaska and Siberia struck by record-high temperatures, our news feeds are populated by stories of intensifying climate emergencies. So frequent are these tragedies, that there is barely time to consider the aftermath of the event and, while it’s one thing to deal with the financial and structural reparations, it’s something totally different to repair the broken spirit of a community. In director Ron Howard’s latest documentary, we meet a community for whom the devastation of climate disaster is a lived reality. Their story brings the climate crisis from the distant horizon to the present day.
On the morning of 8 November 2018, Steve and Maureen Culleton arose as usual in the town of Paradise, California. The conditions were much drier than usual for the time of year. Steve remembers a childhood drenched in rainfall; since 1980 however, autumn rainfall in California has decreased by a third. In the past decade, California has seen five of the state’s 10 largest wildfires and seven of its 10 most destructive fires. Phil John, another well-known figure from the neighbourhood, had been working overtime in his job as chairman of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council. But despite his efforts to improve the community’s fire-preparedness, very little could be done to thwart the devastation of 8 November 2018.
A spark from a transmission line in Northern California grew into a devastating firestorm, engulfing the small town of Paradise. The most destructive fire in US history, the blaze quickly spread across a blanket of desiccated vegetation to cover an area larger than 153,000 acres. Strong winds carried burning embers vast distances. Eighty-five people were killed, thousands were wounded, and more than 50,000 residents were displaced from their beloved town.
Seeing real footage of the hellacious blaze unfold is haunting: frenetic footage of homeowners battling fires with garden hoses in an effort to save their loved ones and possessions; parents consoling frightened children during the forced evacuations; and the sobering dash-cam footage of brave service men and women during the peak of the disaster. Many images of the Californian fires have demonstrated the extent of damage, but seeing donated footage from community members animates the disaster with a terrifying intensity.
Many of the 50,000 displaced people flocked to makeshift camps in Chico, 15 miles west of Paradise. Today, relocated individuals struggle to come to terms with their new lives, lacking basic resources and the irreplaceable possessions lost to the blaze. New and unexpected challenges arise. Toxic benzene emissions contaminate the town’s water supply, leaving residents without drinking water for an estimated three years post-event. Unprecedented events reap unforeseen consequences: a stark warning for our warming planet.
Among the devestation however, the documentary also reveals the imperturbable spirt of community. Michelle John, superintendent of schools, is determined to give the damaged community hope by rebuilding the school system. Brandon Burke, senior at Paradise High School, dreams of raising a family on the same land that he idled on as a child. Town mayor Steve Culleton embraces the role of spearheading Paradise’s cleaning, planning and rebuilding processes.
Director Ron Howard wanted to explore the consequences of climate disaster on the subtler details of human’s emotional lives: ‘There are some people in the country who don’t want to take climate change seriously, maybe they could think at least about human beings and the climate crisis’s effect on our emotions and our community. Maybe that will be undeniable.’
The film is now screening virtually and in select cinemas worldwide. Head over to the website to see how you can watch Rebuilding Paradise