In the fall of 2018, the Camp fire wreaked havoc on the Northern California town of Paradise, destroying more than 14,000 homes, ending 85 lives, displacing tens of thousands of residents, and earning its place in history as the most destructive wildfire in California history. The fire served as a political flashpoint, drawing attention to the issues of global warming, environmental preservation, and government disaster management.
For legendary filmmaker Ron Howard, the fire was personal as his mother-in-law had been a Paradise resident and he counted a number of friends amongst those affected. As the city began to recover and rebuild, Howard and his team began to document it for what would eventually become “Rebuilding Paradise,” a National Geographic feature documentary that made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The Source was amongst the few select publications that were granted an interview with Howard at the film’s opening debut. We spoke at length with him about his personal connection to the film and how he felt that the diverse hip-hop community could get involved in making small changes to help the environment while also holding current and elected government officials accountable for proper disaster management.
The Source: Can you tell us about your personal connection to the area?
Ron Howard: I had family that lived in Paradise. My mother-in-law lived here for five years before she passed away. I have other family that lives nearby there who also suffered through a terrible fire, but nothing as destructive as what happened there in Paradise. So shortly after- days after- the fire, I began wondering, ‘you know what’s it going to be like when the cameras disappear… when the spotlight’s gone.. how can they even dream of real? What’s it going to be like there to cope with this?’ And that’s the story that I was most interested in. It’s not a story of a fire. It’s the story of a community.
As they rebuilt?
Yes, these people want to help others to understand what it is they’re going through, not in the immediate aftermath, but in that year-long sort of journey through suffering. I think we can learn a lot from understanding what they do well, where they struggle with the decisions that they make, and I think it just brings us to ask ourselves- what would people want from society? What would people want from our neighbors? From ourselves, if we were confronted with this kind of stuff?
I knew what kind of American small town this is. You know, it’s not a tourist destination. It has no industry. It’s a beautiful part of the world, but it’s a bit of a struggle to live there as well and there are a lot of people there who are struggling, so I understood that for this sort of catastrophe to happen to them was a very acute and cruel test. We were there to tell the story of the first weeks of the people who were determined to try to rebuild their city.
At The Source, we are an outlet that is focused on hip-hop culture. What do you think that the hip-hop community, which is largely focused in urban and suburban areas, should be doing as a whole to support climate control and nature preservation?
I think that’s a personal decision. Here’s what I learned from making this film- in a small largely Caucasian community. The people who make a difference are the ones who show up. The people who make a difference are the ones who think, they discuss, and they challenge the status quo in very constructive ways. It’s not just protests, it’s action through knowledge and engagement with the follow-through. And these ceremonies [in the film] do matter, you know? Memorials. High school graduations. Christmas tree lighting. Parades. These things matter when a community comes together. So I would say to anybody- the hip hop community, big city, urban, suburban, small-town- it really is about finding your community and working together to really address the problems that you face.
Ok, so you talk about the activism efforts and showing up. We are a non-partisan publication, but this is an election year and we encourage voting- even beyond the presidential election. What do you think that we as voters should be asking our presidential, state, local candidates about the environment?
I think when it relates to the environment, you have to be honest about the fact that there are more intense events [occurring now]. So how do we prepare for it? This is a given. Whatever you believe are the causes, who do we invest in with doing less damage with this? For leaving less scar tissue behind? And develop those policies. I’m not a policymaker. The film doesn’t offer policy suggestions. But individuals can.
Howard was then quick to introduce is to some of the film’s subjects, Paradise residents who had lost everything including a high school grief counselor, a former mayor, a police officer who had watched his own house burn down in the devastating fire, and Michelle John, the superintendent of Paradise’s local school system and widow of Phil John, a former volunteer on the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council before his untimely passing. We expressed our condolences to Mrs. John and invited her to share some thoughts on what, if any, good could come from this tragedy.
The Source: First of all, we’re very sorry for your loss. You mentioned FEMA and how they were less than helpful. This is an election year, so what would you say are some issues that we should be asking our candidates at the local, state, and federal level who are running for office this year?
Michelle John: Well really it would be what’s happening with climate change. I would say, ‘what are you doing to address this?’ The climate affects us all, so I’d make sure that it’s important to them.
Rebuilding Paradise is currently wrapping up its Sundance debut as the festival closes out its last weekend. It will be available in select theaters soon. For more information, visit https://www.nationalgeographic.com/films/rebuilding-paradise/#/.