Just a week before Fire in Paradise’s Netflix premiere, California’s largest wildfire of 2019 (so far) sparked and began raging across Sonoma County, devastating neighborhoods and businesses, forcing nearly 200,000 people to evacuate their homes. The Kincade Fire is only one of nearly 6,000 wildfires the Golden State has been trying to survive this year, and it probably won’t be the last. This is California’s new reality.
But accepting it as the new norm is exactly what the directors of Fire in Paradise warn against. Fire in Paradise, premiering on Nov. 1, follows survivors’ stories from the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. Thirty-nine minutes of harrowing phone footage and interviews document the Camp Fire, the 2018 disaster that destroyed the city of Paradise, killed 85 people, and forced 52,000 people to evacuate their homes.
“Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh you know, it’s happening over there, it can’t happen here,’” director Drea Cooper says. But that can be a dangerous sentiment, one that the documentary is trying to combat by having survivors share their experiences.
“It’s meant to put people in the shoes of the characters and what it was like to be there that day,” director Zackary Canepari says. “It was a traumatic emotional event.”
Fire in Paradise follows several people: parents, responders, children. One of the subjects, Mary Ludwig, was a teacher trying to escape the wildfire with a bus filled with children. The bus driver had torn his shirt to create air filters for the children, some of whom were growing sleepy — presumably from smoke inhalation. Video from that day shows flames surrounding the bus. Ludwig, the bus driver, and her colleague saw their situation grow from dire and desperate to seemingly hopeless.
“It’s hard to say this out loud,” Ludwig says in the documentary. “But we prayed that we would die of smoke inhalation. And that’s a hard prayer to make.”
Ludwig and the rest of the bus survived, and their story is just one of several that Fire in Paradise tracks, and one of thousands from the California wildfires. Another part of Canepari’s goal is to make sure that “this story doesn’t live in a bubble.”
“I want people to be angry, and not be complacent about climate change. It’s not just people, it’s not just individuals,” Canepari says. “I want to see major corporate and government policies. We aren’t talking about that in the film, but we want the film to speak to bigger picture issues.”
California Fire captain Sean Norman touches on the wildfires’ global connection briefly at the end of the documentary.
Courtesy of Zackary Canepari
“The part that’s affecting us most is the weather, and that’s what’s driving these fires. We’re setting records every year. Our humidities are lower,” Norman says in Fire in Paradise. “The fire’s burning as aggressively at night as it is during the day, so we don’t ever get that chance to get ahead of it. And the toll on our people is extreme.”
Climate change is one major factor in what Canepari calls “hyper deadly, hyper aggressive” wildfires. Cooper also points to fire suppression and PG&E as two other factors. Earlier this year, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection after being responsible for about $30 billion in wildfire liabilities. A faulty power line sparked the 2018 Camp Fire, and currently there are suspicions that PG&E may be responsible for the 2019 Kincade Fire.
“I just think that as an investor-owned utility that’s probably traded essentially as a for-profit utility, the state government and the general public needs to hold them accountable,” Cooper says. “We need to put pressure on the company to make them do better.” The consequences of not doing so are aptly detailed in Fire in Paradise.
“What makes this story so difficult to tell — we’re talking about 40,000 people on that day frantically running for their lives. This is on the very edge of what’s possible for imagination,” Cooper says. “And unfortunately, this is happening more and more.”
Canepari calls it “chaos and apocalypse.” Fire in Paradise calls upon people to empathize — and then to effect change.
“I want more stories about these issues,” Canepari says. “I want people to be overwhelmed by climate change stories to the point that there’s nothing else to do but act.”
Premieres Nov. 1 on Netflix.