On November 8, 2018, Northern California was changed forever. At 6:15 am that day, a fire broke out in rural Butte County that would eventually level an entire town in a matter of hours. That fire became known worldwide as the Camp Fire, and Netflix’s new documentary Fire in Paradise shows the tragic hours of pure devastation in Paradise.
The film begins with a calm, happy vibe in the small NorCal town with people dancing, fishing and swimming in the area known for its outdoor recreation. Quickly, the film goes dark and in the next 40 minutes, shows the confusion, panic, raw emotion and fear brought on by the fast-moving flames of the Camp Fire.
Through a series of interviews with 911 dispatchers, Cal Fire workers, school teachers and area residents, teamed with some of the best on-site footage filmed that day, the documentary recreates the terrifying hours on that fateful morning. It can be difficult to watch at times but stands as an important message to the world about how these devastating wildfires completely decimate entire communities.
Some of the best insights into the fire come within the interviews of the people who were working on the fire or stuck trying to flee its path. 911 Cal Fire dispatcher Beth Bowersox talks about the initial feeling of normalcy at the beginning of the fire and how no one could have predicted its immense capability that morning. She talks about how she named the fire, never thinking about how the veracity of the name would linger for generations.
“I actually named it, which has been a nightmare to deal with because everyone’s like ‘Why is it the Camp Fire? Why is it the Camp Fire? Okay, there are reasons it’s named why it’s named. There are specific criteria we have to follow.” Bowersox says with a chuckle, before her face becomes serious again. “It just seemed like a normal fire.”
As the fire began to pick up steam and move and an incredible rate, the film shows the sheer chaos and confusion in the community. In just an hour, the fire had moved an incredible distance over the ridge and into the path of Concow and Paradise. A recorded 911 call with Bowersox shows just how shocked everyone was at the swift movement of the fire:
“Fire rescue, what’s the address of your emergency?”
“A fire just started, kind of where Sawmill Peak comes down on Concow. I can see the flames.”
“Ma’am, we have a large fire in that area.”
“No, this is new flames lady!”
Then the film erupts into stories of evacuation, survival and pure fear. Videos show walls of smoke covering the area, drowning out the light of the sun in the morning. Cars backed up for miles as nearby houses erupt in flames. People desperately trying to find a way out amidst the destruction and chaos.
The film does a great job showing how fast everything happened and how people got stuck trying to flee. With limited roadways to leave the area, the evacuation simply couldn’t happen fast enough. The people were stuck and for some, that cost them their lives.
In an interview with local teachers, they describe how they had to load up a bus full of schoolchildren during the evacuation, terrified for the lives of the kids along with their own. They spent six hours on that bus trying to get out of the town and the teachers describe creating masks out of a shirt to shield the kids breathing from the smoke. They were stopped on the road and watched the town’s only McDonald’s burn in front of their eyes.
Can you imagine being the teachers on that terrifying and emotional situation? Can you imagine the thoughts of the parents, who had no idea where there kids were and how they were going to escape the fire?
One scene shows a group of residents when they realized they were stuck in town. Firefighters and police officers instructed the people to leave their cars as they congregated on a concrete slab and the fire burned the town around them. A nearby propane storage was sending massive explosions into the air by the minute and one person described it as a “warzone.”
It shows video of burned skeletons in the cars, unable to escape from the flames and it makes you think “what stories could those people have told? What are the lost tales of heroism that burned up in the fire along with everything else?”
The best part of this film is that it illustrates how fast everything happened. When you look at photos and videos of the fire, everything looks like it’s at night, when it was actually 10 am. These stories show why so many people lost their lives, since survival was so difficult on that particular day.
The documentary is short, just over 40 minutes, and I think it cut the story a little short. What was lost during the storytelling was that for many people, the nightmare didn’t end after they escaped the fire. I would have liked to see the “refugee camps” in Chico where the 30,000 people who lost their homes lived for weeks on end. I would have loved to see interviews with people who were forced onto the streets by the fire. I would have liked to see the financial impact on the entire county as it dealt with this unprecedented tragedy.
But I digress… It was a great film. It was wrapped up nicely with a reality-check from a Cal Fire Captain Sean Norman, who talks about the “New Normal” and how the fires of California have become so powerful that firefighters don’t have enough tools and resources to slow them.
“Everyone wants to focus on the fuel portion of it, that’s just one component,” said Norman. “The part that’s affecting us the most is our weather. And that’s what’s driving these fires. We’re setting records every year, our humidities are lower, the fires are burning as aggressively at night as they are during the day. And so we don’t ever get that chance to get ahead of it. And the toll on our people is extreme.”
“For us, we’re living it,” Norman continues. “I’m living it half of the year being at war.”
This film may be hard to watch for some. In fact, it should be hard to watch for everyone. But realities aren’t always pretty and we must face our new challenge or “The New Normal” head on. What the documentary lacked in illustrating the long term devastation caused by the Camp Fire, it made up for by showing the chaotic warzone in Paradise on November 8, 2018. Let’s do our best to use it as an educational tool for future wildfires.