‘Rebuilding Paradise’ examines the emotional toll of a deadly fire

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© Provided by The Canadian Press

SAN FRANCISCO – Nearly two years after a wildfire swept through and virtually destroyed his mountain town, Steve “Woody” Culleton was able to put the finishing touches on his new home.

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Two sequoias were planted in the ground, a new lawn and stone patio transformed the once barren yard into a green refuge.

“We are happy,” he said. “We are totally at home.”

The landscaping marked the final chapter in a long ordeal that was captured in “Rebuilding Paradise,” a new documentary by Ron Howard about the aftermath of the most destructive fire in California history.

Shot over a year, the documentary focuses on the colossal cleanup and reconstruction efforts after the inferno of November 8, 2018 that killed 85 people and destroyed some 19,000 buildings. He follows several wildfire survivors as they piece together their lives, and offers signs of the city’s resilience despite many uncertainties about its future.

Howard said he had doubts when he went to Heaven to witness the devastation. He knew the city, having visited two or three times when his mother-in-law lived there, and he was overwhelmed by what he saw.

“I just thought, ‘Well, how are they going to come back to this?’ I mean, here is an area that is just thrown so many body shots, kills, ”he said. “How do you react and recover? And the idea of ​​rebuilding Paradise became the question. Can he even rebuild? ”

While it addresses the failures of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., the utility whose equipment triggered the wildfire and the changing climatic conditions that caused the flames to spread at extreme rates, the documentary focuses mainly on the emotional toll of reconstruction.

Howard’s team became close to displaced families going through the trauma of losing their home, a police officer whose marriage collapsed under the pressure of the crisis, and school workers who fought back to keep the classes together.

Put through what he called a cruel test, Howard said their struggles have become a case study of “what survival looks like, and the possibilities for real healing and also the inevitability of deep wounds and death. real pain that cannot be avoided under all circumstances. ”

Michelle John, the superintendent of schools in Paradise, was under immediate pressure to shut down the school district and enroll students elsewhere in the area after the fire. She worked with other school districts to find a space for the students of Paradise to stay together, and at the end of the school year, she hosted a high school graduation ceremony that many thought was impossible six months before. .

“The children have lost everything: their homes, their sports teams, their soft toys,” she recalls. “Why would we withdraw their teachers and their friends?” ”

A few days after graduation, John’s husband died of a heart attack. She attributed her death to the trauma of the fire.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the stress of the fire and his general sadness about what happened contributed,” she said. “His heart was just broken.

Now retired and living in Reno, Nevada, she said she still speaks frequently with her former colleagues to guide them through the new hurdle: how to help students amid the coronavirus pandemic. She has purchased a new property in Paradise and plans to live there at least part time.

“It’s hard to be away because I want to be there to support people,” she says. “We have a common bond because we have been through this tragedy; ties cannot be broken.

Culleton, the city’s former mayor and city councilor, was one of the first residents of the city to be rebuilt and moved into his new home last December. He said he had decided to rebuild several days after his house burned down and started work to get there.

There was little time to think about the things he had lost in the fire.

“Why sit down and think about it?” he said. “For me it’s painful and triggers all kinds of things. I want to move on. ”

More than 260 houses were rebuilt and the city received some 1,200 building permit applications. Paradise is slowly repopulating, a few grocery stores and hardware stores have reopened, and Culleton believes the heart and soul of the community is “still alive.”

People have returned for Paradise High School football games, he said, and traditions such as Johnny Appleseed Days and Gold Nuggets Day have been kept alive.

Still, his neighbors are gone and Culleton acknowledges that he may not live to see the city make a full comeback. He said he hopes people watching the documentary will come away with a better appreciation for the precious and fragile life of life.

“What happened to us on November 8 was we all thought we were going to die,” he says. “You can lose everything in the blink of an eye. So I try to live fully.

National Geographic is launching “Rebuilding Paradise” in select theaters and on demand via Laemmle and ShowcaseNOW streaming services.

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Myers reported from Los Angeles.

Daisy Nguyen et Amanda Lee Myers, Associated Press

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