Netflix documentary Fire in Paradise is upsettingly timely. The film about the 2018 wildfire that devastated Paradise, California arrives at almost exactly the same time even more fires consume West Coast forests. This documentary focuses on the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed 18,000 buildings and displaced tens of thousands of residents. It was the worst wildfire in more than a century, a tragedy chronicled in a 40-minute short film by directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari.
FIRE IN PARADISE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: At 6:16 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018, a representative from Pacific Gas and Electric called 911 to report a fire in a remote area. Within 1.5 hours, dispatchers’ phones were ringing with disturbing frequency, and they were telling callers to evacuate — right now. By about 10 a.m., the fire had spread more quickly and intensely than anyone expected. The sky was black as night, the air choked with smoke. A bus full of elementary-school children sat in traffic, getting hotter and hotter, the driver tearing a shirt to scraps so the young, increasingly drowsy passengers could have filters over their mouths; one of the teachers on board, Mary Ludwig, felt “deep hopelessness,” and says she prayed to die of smoke inhalation.
But she lived to share her story, and is one of the first-person accounts Cooper and Canepari include in the film. They also interview first-responders and civilian survivors, all of whom bravely put on game faces, which inevitably crack with grief. The filmmakers compile cell-phone footage Paradise residents shot while stuck in traffic or standing in the streets, the area completely surrounded by towering flames, roadways blocked, ash raining from the sky, flaming tree branches smacking into car windshields, propane tanks exploding, strong winds blowing large embers to yards, homes and buildings that burn to cinders with terrifying swiftness.
Performance Worth Watching: Dacia Williams’ recounting of how she lay on a cement slab under a blanket with her son and dog for hours as the fire passed through is incredible. And sobering.
Memorable Dialogue: Police Capt. Sean Norman sums it up succinctly, his voice cracking: “It was just a shitty day.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Fire in Paradise is gut-wrenchingly tense. If Cooper and Canepari intended to capture the severe stress felt by Paradise residents as they ran for their lives, they were profoundly successful. Some of the footage is unflinching: The surreal, bright pink flames that one woman says reminds her of biblical stories of armageddon. Ludwig asks her students if they wake up feeling very sad or angry, and write about it in their journals; kids draw pictures of the scorched earth that used to be their homes. One survivor, filming with his phone, finds the charred skeleton of his friend in a burned-up car: “You can see he’s dead, and his mother. I’m sorry, buddy,” he eulogizes.
The film’s power lies in the balance of imagery and narration, both raw and real. The filmmakers edit it taut for maximum impact. A longer documentary about the Camp Fire may yet be made, and likely would include more detail, but it probably won’t be as vigorous or profound. Cooper and Canepari address the why and how of this tragedy with a simple graphic listing the multitude of wildfires that have indelibly scarred California in the last decade, as Capt. Norman authoritatively says it’s not a coincidence. Problems with the Pacific Gas and Electric equipment that sparked the fire are part of the problem, he insists, but the real issue is the increasingly dry weather, the changes in climate patterns that result in more intense fires. “I’m living half the year being at war,” he says.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Fire in Paradise is a difficult watch. But it’s a must-watch.