'Rebuilding Paradise' looks at emotional toll of deadly fire

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National Geographic

This image released by National Geographic shows documentary subject Steve "Woody" Culleton rebuilding his home in Paradise, Calif., in a scene from "Rebuilding Paradise." A new documentary by director Ron Howard captures a town's tough recovery following one of the most devastating wildfires in California's history. (National Geographic via AP)

SAN FRANCISCO – Almost two years since a wildfire swept through his mountain town and virtually wiped it out, Steve “Woody” Culleton got to put the final touches on his new home.

Two redwood trees were planted in the ground, a new lawn and stone patio transformed the once barren yard into a green refuge.

“We're happy,” he said. “We're totally home.”

The landscaping marked the final chapter of a long ordeal that was captured in “Rebuilding Paradise,” a new documentary directed by Ron Howard about the aftermath of the most destructive wildfire in California's history.

Filmed over the course of a year, the documentary focuses on the colossal cleanup and rebuilding efforts after the Nov. 8, 2018, inferno that killed 85 people and destroyed some 19,000 buildings. It follows several wildfire survivors as they piece their lives back together and offers signs of the town's resilience despite many uncertainties about its future.

Howard said he had his doubts when he went to Paradise to witness the devastation. He knew the town, having visited a couple of times when his mother-in-law lived there, and he was overwhelmed by what he saw.

“I just thought, ‘Well, how are they going to come back on this?’ I mean, here’s a region that is just getting thrown so many body blows, death blows,” he said. "How do you respond and recover? And the idea of rebuilding Paradise became the question. Can it even rebuild?”

While it touches upon the failings of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., the utility whose equipment sparked the wildfire, and changing climate conditions that caused the flames to spread at extreme rates, the documentary mainly focuses on the emotional toll of rebuilding.