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Ron Howard arrives at Sundance with harrowing documentary about devastating Camp Fire

Filmmaker Ron Howard details the destructive Camp Fire in California in 2018 in the Sundance Film Festival documentary “Rebuilding Paradise.” He says it was “jaw-droppingly disturbing” arriving to start filming after the devastation of the blaze.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Noah Berger

“Rebuilding Paradise,” an entry into the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Premieres category, is set to screen at the following times and locations:

Friday, Jan. 24, 5:45 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre

Saturday, Jan. 25, 3 p.m., Redstone Cinema 7

Sunday, Jan. 26, 12:15 p.m., Grand Theatre Salt Lake City

Friday, Jan. 31, 12 p.m., Park Avenue Theatre

Sunday, Feb. 2, 1 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room

Just after the theater darkens during Sundance Film Festival screenings of Ron Howard’s documentary “Rebuilding Paradise,” the filmmaker takes the audience through the hell of attempting to escape a terrible wildfire.

The emergency responders request 15 additional fire engines and other equipment. “Call in overtime personnel. Now,” comes across the emergency radio. The fire is all around. The roads are filled with smoke. A driver moves forward through the flames. The skies eventually clear. Howard starts the film with nearly nine minutes of dramatic scenes of the Camp Fire, a 2018 blaze that struck Paradise, California, and stands as the worst ever in California.

It is an extraordinary introduction to a film with relevance throughout the West as the fast-growing region grapples with the threat of wildfires, either caused naturally or by humans, amid the development.

In the case of the Camp Fire, investigators found Pacific Gas and Electric Company to be at fault. The booming West, including Park City and surrounding Summit County, has brought development to heavily forested lands and created the danger of devastating fires in mountain communities across the Intermountain region.

RELATED: Park City fire chief: Devastating blaze like the Camp Fire in California unlikely locally

Howard’s mother-in-law once lived in Paradise, providing him with a background in the community years before the fire. It was “jaw-droppingly disturbing” arriving in Paradise to start filming, Howard said in an interview as Sundance approached. Howard, an Academy Award-winning director whose works include “Apollo 13” and “The Da Vinci Code,” is a first-time Sundance filmmaker who is bringing “Rebuilding Paradise” to the festival for the world premiere.

“It’s not just that horrible, shocking few days of awareness,” he said, comparing the scene to photographs of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II.

The sense of “total annihilation and devastation” was clear in Paradise, he said. Howard described the film as the story of a community recovering from a “cruel test” that killed 85 people and burned upward of 19,000 structures.

Howard shows the horrors through footage from the scene and interviews. At one moment, a law enforcement officer tells of finding a survivor when the search had been for the person’s body instead. At another point, Paradise firefighters describe the fire as a perfect storm with wind carrying the flames and little rain. Fires are lasting longer and becoming more extreme, a retired fire chief says.

There are personal stories from the people impacted. A shot glass survived the flames, one of the victims said, while another one wants to leave but has nowhere to go. Howard said he appreciated the openness of the community.

The film also delves into the bureaucratic and legal implications of a disaster, covering calls from the victims for Pacific Gas and Electric Company to be held accountable and the response by federal emergency officials.

But the film also shows a community that must move on. There is debate about where the high school graduation should be held after the destruction. The Miss Gold Nugget Pageant celebration, a tradition in Paradise, is held afterward and the government there starts to issue building permits. The rebuilding begins, and some tell the filmmaker they want to raise their kids in Paradise.

“It really does deal with a community,” Howard said. “They’re offering object lessons.”


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