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Rebuilding Paradise: Ron Howard's powerful story of town rising from wildfire's ashes

Review: Howard's National Geographic documentary thoughtfully exposes how California's deadliest wildfire wasn't just a natural disaster.

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Rebuilding Paradise meets the families who lost everything in a deadly wildfire.

National Geographic

It only took a few hours for the fire to destroy Paradise. Rebuilding Paradise was something else entirely.

The deadliest wildfire in California history tore through the towns of Concow and Paradise in the early hours of November 8, 2018. A new National Geographic documentary from director Ron Howard opens with terrifying footage of that beautiful fall morning turning into an apocalyptic firestorm, and follows the inhabitants of the town for the next year as they struggle to rebuild. And it reveals the causes of this natural disaster were as much a product of human greed.

Nat Geo's Rebuilding Paradise opens in virtual and physical theaters on July 31. It begins with harrowing dash cam and phone video showing the fire approaching and then engulfing homes and schools. Within moments, cars edge through thick black smoke, with fire all around as propane tanks explode nearby. The most chilling thing is the soundtrack: 911 calls of people begging for help.

After that intense opening, the devastation is revealed. Homes, schools, hospitals, businesses are simply gone -- 18,000 buildings reduced to outlines of ash on the ground. And 85 people are dead.

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The ashes of Paradise.

National Geographic

We meet the survivors who make it their mission to rebuild their community. The families trying to protect their children. The local cop in tears as he recounts what happened that day. The school officials finding places for kids in makeshift classrooms at warehouses and vacant stores, determined to return to the school football field for a symbolic graduation.

These aching human stories reveal ordinary people's everyday struggles in the aftermath of the unthinkable, and invites you to ask yourself what you would do in that situation. Would you be ready? How would you cope? Could you rebuild? What would you do if you lost everything?

Howard's film sensitively reveals how the ordinary people of Paradise try to pick themselves up, and yet face further setbacks adding insult to injury. A month of tents and crammed-in cots in gyms and donated clothes is followed by a return to rubble and twisted metal. The water is poison. Bureaucracy stymies the community. And this displaced, destroyed life puts relationships under cruel strain as families struggle to cope.

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The people of Paradise faced more hardship even after the fire was out.

National Geographic

Also the subject of a nerve-wracking Netflix documentary Fire in Paradise, the 2018 Camp Fire is an important story in many ways. It isn't entirely a tragedy, because of the quietly inspirational way so many people worked to bounce back. Nor is it it simply a heartwarming story of odds overcome. It's all those things -- my eyes welled up about three minutes in and stayed wet throughout -- but it's also a warning, a cautionary tale. The natural conditions on that November day were just right for a fire, as high winds allowed the blaze to race across drought-stricken dry country. But this natural disaster had plenty of man-made help.

Logging practices by timber companies changed the environment over the past century, while the fire was ignited by faulty electrical equipment. The company responsible was Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), the company Erin Brockovich infamously challenged, as chronicled in a 2000 feature film starring Julia Roberts. 

What's most alarming about Rebuilding Paradise is that it's just one story, one community. The firestorm was fueled by an intersection of causes related to capitalism and conservationism and corporate irresponsibility stretching back decades. And on a wider scale, you see the impact of climate change not on graphs and sea levels but on real people like you or me. "Firefighters are living climate change," someone says as wildfires become more extreme. Fires, floods, hurricanes ... we're all living it.

And at some point, there'll be no rebuilding paradise.