'There were no victories': Netflix releases heartbreaking Camp Fire documentary #campfire
'There were no victories': Netflix releases heartbreaking Camp Fire documentary
Netflix releases the documentary short "Fire in Paradise" November 1, 2019.
It’s been a year since the Camp Fire, and Capt. Sean Norman is facing another fire.
The Cal Fire Battalion Chief was stationed in Santa Nella this week, just before Halloween, between the Kincade Fire and Getty Fire. He was waiting to see where winds kick up before he and 52 others on Cal Fire’s Incident Management Team were deployed to potentially fight flames.
Hopefully, none will compare to those of the Camp Fire — the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history — which tore through Butte County last November, a tragedy that Norman knows all too well.
That 2018 disaster is the subject of a new, 40-minute documentary, “Fire in Paradise,” featuring Norman. And ahead of its Nov. 1 release, he’s resting for a moment to recall the experience of filming the documentary.
When the Camp Fire began, he says, he knew immediately that it would be unprecedented.
“It was so much bigger than us, so much faster than us, and every time we turned the corner it was there waiting for us,” Norman remembers. “We never
had the chance to get an anchor point.”
Norman had been in the thick of it, busting into vacated pharmacies to shelter evacuees and saving lives in the process.
“We knew the only thing we could do was get those people out,” Norman says of that day. “Rescue was the priority.”
By Thanksgiving 2018, he explains, fires were finally manageable. He was in Paradise, working as part of a team on a heartbreaking assignment: searching for the remains of people who didn’t escape the fire. That day, he met Zackary Canepari, a documentary filmmaker who had just arrived in Paradise for a project.
“[Norman] was more raw than everybody else I had been speaking with,” Canepari says. The Cal Fire official had already been dealing with some people in the media, but Canepari struck him differently.
“He wasn’t asking the grim questions,” Norman says of the documentary director. Canepari wasn’t enquiring about the morbid process of uncovering remains or being otherwise insensitive, which gave Norman pause. This was hard work Cal Fire was doing — emotionally and physically strenuous — and Norman was attempting to cope with what he was seeing.
“It broke us all down every day,” he says. “There were no victories.”
The two later drove around for a few hours, talking about what had happened. He later introduced Canepari and his co-director Drea Cooper to “as many people in [his] department who had been directly affected”; those who lost homes and fought fires, and who might be willing to talk about it on camera.
Cooper and Canepari are seasoned photojournalists who sought to tell the story of Paradise as authentically as possible. To do so, they connected with many around Butte County in the immediate aftermath, in their RVs, hotel rooms, or wherever they were. Some people reached out to them, and everyone had a story. Some had their own footage, too.
“Everyone was in this fire for multiple hours,” Canepari says. “We discovered there was a mass amount of first-hand videos. Looking at it we realized there was nothing more authentic than these shaky, body cam-type videos. We wanted to try to put an audience inside the fire and give them the real first-hand experience.”
For Cooper, the research experience was particularly surreal. The Oakland resident had spent summers in Paradise as a child after his grandparents retired there. They've since passed, but still, the first place he went when he arrived on the ground after the Camp Fire was the home they had once owned.
“It was one of the only houses on that block,” he recalls. “To see their home untouched was jaw-dropping. It spoke to how random in some cases fire is.”
One of the subjects in the documentary, an elementary school teacher, also found her home was salvaged. That wasn’t necessarily a blessing.
“They have to deal with survivor's guilt, but also the ‘how do I live in a town that doesn’t exist?’” Cooper says. “You have this home you’ve invested time and money into and it’s not worth it.”
By the time Norman sat down to take part in the documentary, he was on the last days of his 21-day assignment in Butte County. It was a difficult experience, and he was, as he remembers, “spent and broken.”
“I let them into a part of me I don’t usually let anyone else see,” Norman says. “There’s a part you keep inside. I was nervous about the film, to be quite honest, [but] they did an unbelievable job of showing what really happened. In some way, you are transported into that day and you feel that sense of desperation.”
Over the course of filming, Cooper and Canepari interviewed 25 people, each for an hour at a time. They wound up spotlighting six for the documentary. The process was exceptionally taxing.
“This was easily the hardest film we’ve ever made,” Cooper says. “It was emotionally challenging … [But] it can be therapeutic. People needed to process. The making of the film itself was a chance for people to process what they had seen, to vocalize it and share it. I think we were humbled, really had a great respect for every person.”
The message of the film, the directors say, isn’t meant to provoke sympathy. It’s not even necessarily for Butte County or those who experienced the Camp Fire in Paradise. It’s meant to “wake people up,” as Canepari says.
“We want to make stories that affect people,” he continues. “This is real. There’s a strong climate change message here. The whole idea is to make people upset because that’s how we feel. … The [fires] are happening more often and for longer. It’s meant to be a message about a bigger issue we’re all facing collectively. For me, the story is meant to shake people up a little bit.”
As he prepares to go into battle again, Norman tells SFGATE he hopes viewers take away a feeling that Californians are all in this together; it’s not just up to city and county officials to stop such fires.
“It’s all of our problem,” he says. “We [need to] recognize the fact that the climate is changing and we have a duty to accept it and fix it in [even] the smallest ways possible. And we need to hold our elected officials accountable to do the will of the people. It’s an essential threat to our way of life. If it hasn’t affected you yet, it will.”
“Fire in Paradise” premieres on Netflix November 1, 2019.