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Deadly Camp Fire revisited in powerful Netflix documentary

The film recounts the catastrophe in as-it-happened fashion from the moment of ignition and via harrowing first-hand footage


By Chuck Barney
The Mercury News

BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. — “I could see the plume of smoke coming. It was eerie. It was like a big monster.”

That’s how Ray Johnson describes the ominous sense of doom he experienced on Nov. 8, 2018 as the horrific Camp Fire began to rage in Butte County. A volunteer firefighter, Johnson is among the survivors and emergency responders who recount their gripping stories in the powerfully visceral Netflix documentary “Fire in Paradise.”

It is one of two films debuting this week that revisit the deadliest wildfire in California history. The other is a Frontline production — also titled “Fire in Paradise” — that airs on PBS Tuesday night. Both recount the catastrophe in as-it-happened fashion from the moment of ignition, and via harrowing first-hand footage.

Combined, they provide a comprehensive portrait of the fire’s massive devastation, in a way that has never before seen. Prepare to watch through watery eyes.

The Netflix film, executive produced by Zackary Canepari and Oakland resident Drea Cooper, begins with home-video footage that serves as a reminder of life in Paradise before the town was destroyed. Residents are seen enjoying picnics and parades and swimming and fishing amid natural, wooded beauty.

And then the peaceful bliss is broken by the sound of a recorded safety alert from Pacific Gas & Electric warning of “extreme weather conditions and high fire danger.”

As recalled by Beth Bowersox, a 9-1-1 Cal Fire dispatcher, it all started innocently enough — with a seemingly small blaze in a canyon near Pulga, about seven miles outside Paradise. At the time, she thought it was “no big deal.”

Of course, it turned out to be a huge deal. Fanned by high winds, the fire rapidly exploded in size. Canepari and Cooper use terrifying apocalyptic video shot by individuals on foot — or in their vehicles — to capture the panic. You hear the utter fear in peoples’ voices. And the feeling of helpless terror amid the chaos is conveyed in a way that no Hollywood disaster film can match.

The most distressing story is related by teachers Mary Ludwig and Abbie Davis who spent six hours inside a bus full of elementary school children on a slow and precarious journey to escape danger. At one point, as the smoke turned day into night and the kids grew sleepy, the driver (Kevin McKay) tore his shirt into strips, which were doused with water and handed to the students to use as masks.

The “Frontline” documentary also pairs you-are-there footage with nightmarish personal accounts. In one, Nichole Jolly tells of being trapped in her car as the flames grew around her. Fearing that death was imminent, she called her husband, who convinced her that the only way out was to ditch the car and run through the inferno.

While both films lean into the human emotions surrounding the catastrophe, “Frontline,” as it typically does, delivers some investigative reporting along with the heartbreak. The PBS program addresses what role PG&E negligence might have played in the disaster, and examines whether the county’s evacuation plans and emergency alert systems were lacking.

It also explores, with the aid of Stanford and UC Berkeley experts, how climate change has contributed to making blazes bigger and more frequent — certainly a relevant topic as wildfires continue to break out in Sonoma County and all over California.

“We have a problem that’s going to grow worse inevitably over the next several decades,” says Michael Wara, director of Stanford’s Climate and Energy Policy Program. “I don’t think anyone feels prepared for the kind of catastrophe that is possible now.”

While “Frontline” deals with the tough questions, the Netflix film uses its closing moments to tap into the aftermath of the Camp Fire. There are scenes of officials searching through the rubble for the dead, and of shaken but resilient residents returning to the charred remains of their homes.

And there is the poignant concern that, as other disasters occur in California and elsewhere, attention will be diverted and what happened to the people of Paradise will somehow get lost.

“People are going to forget,” says a survivor. “And I don’t want them to forget.”


©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)