By C.J. Hirschfield
The new Netflix documentary Fire in Paradise was planned for release near the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire in Butte County, the country’s deadliest wildfire in over a century. The fire killed 85 people in the town of Paradise. As the film’s November 1st release date approached, Oakland-based co-director Drea Cooper recalls feeling good that the 2019 fire season was not as bad as last year. But by the time the actual date arrived, the entire state of California had endured three weeks of flames, and causing millions of people to be without power–including Drea and his family. “Surreal,” is how he puts it. Surreal, but as the film suggests, also the new normal.
Drea has a couple of personal reasons for making this film. Living in the Oakland hills, he knows that fires have become commonplace from September to October, and he knows many friends and families who have been touched by megafires. His grandfather retired in Paradise, and he spent happy summers there when he was growing up. “It was a special place to me,” he says.
The ninety-minute documentary painstakingly—and terrifyingly– covers the entire day of the fire, starting with bucolic shots of residents swimming, fishing and barbequing—before their town of 26,000 was forever changed. “It seemed like a normal fire at first,” recalls one of the survivors, a 911 dispatcher who took the first call reporting a plume of smoke. From the initial warning of high winds, through the unimaginable hell that followed, and finally to the ashes that used to be a community, with 85 dead, the story is told using first-hand footage and interviews with survivors and emergency responders. This is truly a horror story; one designed to “make you as uncomfortable as possible, and put you in the middle of the experience,” says Drea.
Drea and co-director Zackary Canepari shot a significant portion of the film just a couple of weeks after the fire, when, although feelings were so raw, survivors wanted to tell their stories. And share some of their own footage, which is hard to watch. We are amazed that these folks made it out alive. Particularly inspirational is the story of two courageous and committed elementary school teachers who accompanied their young students on a bus that was stopped for six hours, while surrounded by flames. Another recounts one respondent’s efforts to get recalcitrant residents out, against their wishes, and saving their lives.
Fire in Paradise is well made, offering us footage and unique perspectives that we haven’t seen before. The story itself is so dramatic that it would have worked better without its ominous music with its pounding beats.
Although the film serves as a meticulous documentation of the fire, it also comes with a message. When asked if the film is political, Drea does not hesitate to answer “Absolutely.”
The film makes the case that you can’t say that the Paradise fire was unprecedented, and lists the dozens of mega-fires in the state over the last ten years. Rather, it’s the new normal.
Drea identifies the elephants in the room as being climate change, and PG&E’s skirting of its responsibility to adequately maintain its equipment. He sees politics intertwined with policy as having created an untenable situation that he hopes will shake people into action.
Now that the film is out, what do its featured Paradise residents think, and how are they doing? “It runs the gamut; they’re still in survival mode,” says Drea. “Documentary as a form can be therapeutic; allowing people to process what they’ve experienced.” Mary Ludwig, one of the heroic schoolteachers, says that she was helped by the retelling. Ray Johnson, a volunteer firefighter who’s rebuilding his house, told Drea that while there were “lots of tears, “it was good to see it.
If viewers are shocked by what they see in the film, then Drea believes the medium is working—showing just how real and severe these fires are.
He also believes that we have unrealistic expectations of our firefighters, whom we’ve come to rely on. “We put them on a heroic pedestal, but they can’t do it by themselves,” he says. The need for community support and preparedness is key.
In this important and cautionary film, one of the survivors of California’s deadliest wildfire shares her message: “We don’t want people to forget about us.”
Fire in Paradise is now available on Netflix: netflix.com/fireinparadise
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”