On the 8th of November 2018, a fire broke out in California near the town of Paradise. What seemed routine soon turned into a vicious wildfire that would claim 85 lives. Fire in Paradise is a short, sharp documentary combining real footage from camera phones and dash cams alongside talking head interviews. It crams so much into 40 minutes, you’ll be swept along for the ride as it raises valid points around what happens when a disaster is over?
The disasters faced
A fire out of control, a lot of traffic and a field of propane tanks… (!)
Fire in Paradise follows the day of disaster from the accounts of 13 people that funnel into several different stories depending on where they all end up. Beth works in the 911 call centre and takes the calls as they come in. What seems like a small fire soon veers out of control quickly due to high winds and extreme weather. It whips the fire into being able to jump roads and fields as the fire debris starts to rain down on other towns, arriving in Paradise very quickly.
Ray is a volunteer firefighter who is caught up in the evacuation and general assessment of the fire. Whilst he rescues and evacuates various residents, his wife Jennifer and children Madeline Noah are stuck in a car in traffic. The dashcam footage of them screaming in panic and fear as branches on fire rain down on their car bonnet are nightmare fuel. In a similar nightmare are teaches Mary and Abbie who are trying to evacuate their class on a school bus also stuck in traffic. They recount their ordeal of trying to keep the kids awake and alive as the smoke pours into the bus. Speaking of the smoke – the kids thought it was 10pm, not 10am – and the footage is like nighttime since the smoke is so dense. The elderly were largely part of the death toll. Joy recounts her escape through her footage with her son. Policeman Rob’s dash footage as you see the fire coming at you down the street whilst he tries to drag unwilling evacuees away is tense as it is infuriating. It left Rob having to drive through flames to escape – no wonder he’d had enough by the end of the day.
For me, Dacia’s story is one of the most harrowing. Upon evacuating, she ends up trapped along with fireman Sean in a group of cars that are totally cut off from everyone else. The fire has them surrounded. Next to a gas station. Thankfully, a concrete parking lot is nearby and so the advice is to abandon the car, lay down on the concrete and wait for the fire to literally blow over them. Little did they know, the field behind them was a propane tank storage field so they start exploding like bombs.
Everyone in the film obviously survives but the mark of the fire on the community and them as individuals are given the final quarter of the short. I’m glad it was because it briefly touches on the trauma of survival. That could be on the children who don’t know how to express themselves, a teacher and their school now decimated with no prospects of rebuilding, or a town in ruins waiting to be rebuilt. Would you return back to ruins or would you just move on and accept your new life? Would the new life pale in comparison?
Why is it worth watching?
This is a to the point documentary. The 40 minutes are jam-packed with barely any introductions at all. You are straight in with each person’s evacuation and how they coped. If you want a real footage documentary minus any extra fluff, this is one of those types of documentaries. On the flipside – I wanted more. There’s a lot touched on, particularly on the post-disaster thoughts, that could have been explored a little more. Sean’s discussion on climate change as the real catalyst is landed powerfully though and totally valid. There’s a point where Sean says his wife stood him to stop saying every fire is unprecedented because each year, the bar of destruction gets higher. It conveys so much so well. Beth also asks the world not to forget them now they need help to rebuild. She knows the town is small and the world will move on and bigger events will overtake them but they still need help. Those were my two takeaways from a heart-racing montage of real footage.
A few transitional effects are used such as fire explosions and such but mostly this is found footage and it’s all the more powerful for it. A fire tornado was not what I expected to be seen on a mobile phone clip.
I just don’t want people to forget about us.Beth closes the documentary out with this.
Three memorable moments
- Mary speaking of her prayers for the children to be taken by smoke inhilation rather than be burned.
- Dacia’s realisation that she’s going to have to lay down in the fire and hope for the best.
- Sean’s post disaster scenes pointing the finger at climate change and the need to do better.
The obligatory weird moment
I wouldn’t call it weird – it is an observation. Everyone seems to pray for help at some point. I can’t speak for being involved in such a situation as to what I’d do but I’d like to think I’d not pray but be planning my next move.
Fire in Paradise is a fascinating documentary. On the first count, it is a visceral retelling of a horrific event. Secondly, the all too brief look into how the affected people and town afterwards carry on gives you questions to ponder on. Memorable, if a little brief.
Rating: 4 / 5 – Excellent
If you enjoyed Fire in Paradise, you may also like…
- Tsunami: Caught on Camera – Still one of the most distressing but captivating documentaries I’ve ever seen.
- When A City Falls – A stunning look at how to rebuild community following Earthquake after Earthquake
- Japan Tsunami: Caught on Camera – Another absolutely horrifying but captivating real footage / survivor documentary.
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