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Film about Paradise fire to debut

The new film “Fire in Paradise,” produced by Ashlander Gary Kout, presents a riveting look inside the lives of people who fled the most deadly fire in the U.S. in a century — the Nov. 8, 2018, conflagration that incinerated Paradise, California, killing 85.

Daily news and TV outlets just could not convey what it means to have your whole town engulfed in a wind-whipped inferno and to be trapped in traffic jams — including a school bus full of small children — with no time to run.

What’s different with this movie is that everyone had bodycams or video in their phones, so we don’t have to rely just on words. We are visually thrust in the middle of a modern apocalypse that, in late fall, no one expected.

The 40-minute film was commissioned by Netflix and can be viewed there. It has made the rounds of film festivals, winning Best Documentary Short at one. It will have its first local showing at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 7, (the night before the first anniversary of the fire) at Ashland’s Varsity Theater. Proceeds will benefit North Valley Community Foundation Fire Relief in Chico, California, which aids Paradise victims, and the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

The film is a masterwork of the disaster documentary genre, building at an irresistible, monstrous pace, from cheery shots of swimming and picnics, and a bouncy TV weatherman saying winds and temps will be high, so it’s gonna be a “dangerous day.” Then, at 6:16 in the morning, fire-rescue dispatcher Beth Bowersox gets a call — a small plume of smoke 7 miles east.

The film’s interviews of survivors, school kids and firefighters are devastating, and Kout says even film crews couldn’t hold back tears as they filmed.

“It seemed like a normal fire,” says Bowersox , “but it got bad real quick.”

Within minutes, she was taking a cascade of 911 calls and suddenly, it was about houses burning with intense heat and speed in Paradise itself.

Two elementary teachers tell of running to their cars, but then, seeing their pupils on the school bus, terrified and crying, they choose to get on the bus. For six hours. With fire on both sides of the street, they get stuck in traffic. The bus filled with smoke. One little girl recalls she pledged, “Today is not my day. I’m not dying today.” When they get to an interchange and find it engulfed in fire, said teacher Mary Ludwig, “that’s when I first felt this deep hopelessness.”

The bus driver tears up his shirt and soaks strips in water (they have only one bottle in a purse) to serve as smoke filters. The teachers try to hide their emotions, hold hands with kids, and “it’s hard to say this out loud, but we prayed we would die of smoke inhalation (not fire).”

Grapefruit-size fireballs fly, starting blazes all over town. Finally, Bowersox begins telling all callers, “No one is coming to help you. You have to get out, now.” Surrounded by fires, police order stalled motorists out of their cars and get them to lay in a big parking lot, near where big propane tanks are exploding.

Finally, after many hours, the flames move on. It’s over. Almost 10,000 homes burned, and cars, too. The film even shows a skeleton sitting in a car.

It’s a giant tragedy for a town of 26,000 but, the film asks, what does it mean to the world? Captain Sean Norman of CalFire reflects, “In the last 10 years we’ve had a series of fires that have eclipsed anything we’ve had in the history of firefighting in California. It most certainly is not normal mass destruction, extremely rapid fire spread, resistance to control.

“Everyone wants to focus on the fuel portion of it (but) the part that’s affecting us the most is our weather,” he says. “Humidity is lower. Fires burn hard at night. They used to taper off and give firefighters a chance to regroup — and the toll on our firefighters is extreme. I’m living it half the year, being at war.”

One survivor calls it “Armageddon.”

The dispatcher adds, “We’re all walking zombies. So many people still need help.”

Producer Kout, in an interview, said, “Climate-change deniers don’t want to see this film and other evidence that climate is changing and these are the consequences. The firefighters on the ground realize what we’re up against. It’s undeniable. We want the film to be a wakeup call.”

Directors Zachary Canepari and Drea Cooper, in an interview transcription, said they arrived for filming two weeks after the blaze and at first had no idea of the “traumatic, unimaginable horror” people suffered. But survivors were eager to talk and displayed amazing “resilience of the human spirit” in rebuilding their lives.

“The film is only about 40 minutes,” notes Canepari, “That’s about one-fifth of the time these people were actually in the fire trying to escape, breathing in smoke, surrounded by fire, praying, holding their families, absolutely terrified for their lives. Everyone has a cellphone now, and we record and photograph everything, so this horrifying event was heavily documented by thousands of people who lived through it.”

Cooper adds, “It quickly became clear that what people in Paradise experienced was unlike any other fire experience in modern history. In a matter of a couple hours, an entire town of people had to run for their lives. Hearing the way they managed to escape was terrifying, but also courageous, just understanding how people managed to survive, and what lengths they had to go to, was awe-inspiring. Every interview we did was hard to hear. We were often in tears ourselves.”

In the end, the film slams a big lesson onto the table: “Climate change is real,” says Canapari.

“I want people to be angry. Captain Sean Norman was such a strong subject for us because he’s had decades of experience fighting fires, and he can point at this tragedy and say, ‘This is what’s happening and people need to pay attention. This is the new normal, and we can’t keep up with it.’ This is a story about a bigger issue threatening the world, not just California.”

After the film at the Varsity, Ashland firefighters will answer questions. One, Tim Hegdahl, was there for mop-up two days later and talked with many of those affected. Also present will be Fire Chief David Shepherd and Forestry Division Chief Chris Chambers, who assures people that Ashland is in a much safer category than Paradise, mainly because our autumn “diablo winds” from the east are only 20 to 30 mph, while in California they get up to 70 to 80 mph.

“We have a chance to get hold of any fire, though it’s still real challenging, but we can corral it with good access on roads and irrigation canals — and we have more urban area and less forest around us. Fire may burn into the sides, not the middle of town. Our highest risk is in late August and September, when fuel is driest — and less so in fall.”

Still taken from the move “Fire in Paradise.”
Still taken from the move “Fire in Paradise.”