Update, remembrance & what fellow survivors taught me about enduring
If you’re like me, 2020 feels like a hammer smashing a marble.
I know we’re supposed to talk about rising up, being strong, overcoming, stiff upper lipping our way through it and all of those intentions are valuable.
But… Jesus Christ. I mean… Jesus Christ what an era.
This posting is meant as a reflection on the two-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, as an update on our project Three Days in Paradise and as a personal update for all of you who have become friends through these years. It’s also an update on the bright, if bittersweet, days, months and years to come.
I’ll admit, most of the traumatic after effects of the Camp Fire did not come home to me fully until this year. In the aftermath of the fire it became my ambition, along with my producing partners Laura Smith and Jenna Lane, to tell the story of our town, our history, our people like only those who lived here and held it close.
That work through 2019 allowed me to forestall most of the trauma I saw in our fellow survivors. Working on Three Days in Paradise kept me busy. It’s my ambition to tell such a deep, era-spanning story of what the fire meant to us all that my work dovetailed with a lot of other meaningful projects.
I was lucky enough to make on a very meaningful project, the Emmy-Nominated A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire. I was able to be a field producer on Ron Howard, Xan Parker and Lizz Morhaim’s Rebuilding Paradise, and go to the Sundance Film Festival. As a filmmaker, it’s quite an experience and one I never thought I would have when I settled in Paradise. (It’s premiering on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday at 9 PM).
When I got home in February, I was planning to make several trips around the country to gather the funding and support to make Three Days exactly the kind of high quality, modern, meaningful production our story deserves.
My travel was to begin in late March or early April. Plans personal, career and professional were cancelled. I was forced to stop and think.
I fell apart.
I won’t go deeply into it here because I’m sure my struggles rhyme with your own. Since the fire I came down with an illness that has left half my face partially paralyzed. My boys have had more taken from them than I think I’ll ever know. I’m proud of the men they’ve become, but I can still see the tremors of anger, nostalgia and sadness in quiet moments when they think of their childhood in Paradise. And my ex-wife was rushed into emergency surgery and had a close call.
And that. When the fire happened, we were married and now for a constellation of reasons we are not. While we parted as friends, this was once one of my greatest fears and another one of the things I wonder would be different if it weren’t for the fire.
But we will never feel another day when the influence of November 8, 2018 does not touch us. So we soldier on. In the past months and weeks I’ve risen from my knees and am getting back to work. About that…
While the arrival of Covid-19 has scrambled the lives of everyone, it has done a real number of the film and TV industry. My friends in the industry tell me it’s likely movie theaters will never return to be what they once were. That is not to say anything changes for producing Three Days in Paradise (not a thing in this world or the next will stop me from working on it until it’s finished and worthy), it’s just that the media landscape has changed. We are changing with it, to make sure our story still gets out.
In many ways, that has made the production more challenging… the tastes of streaming and distribution companies have changed. But almost uniquely the events of 2020, with fire in Australia and here in California, the burdens of a pandemic touching everyone on the planet, has made our story of loss and rebirth resonant to almost every other human on Earth in a new way.
One way is we will be producing a podcast with award-winning KCBS Radio reporter Jenna Lane. It will be a kind of sister project to compliment the documentary series. More details on that to come.
Another is that we are going to be going back out into the field for more interviews, more updates, more stories that have cropped up as we have rebuilt. Our ambition is to tell the story of our people from long before the fire to long after. To take all our pain and love and experience and make something meaningful that will be ours, and last long after we are gone.
Our story is not unique. Overcoming is our essential human nature. And no one can tell that story to a world that needs to hear it better than us.
We here on the THREE DAYS IN PARADISE production team were heartened to learn Wednesday of a bittersweet honor: The spin-off documentary we produced last year, A HIGH AND AWFUL PRICE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE CAMP FIRE (which you can watch for free here) was nominated for an Emmy Award.
Near to our heart, we produced the program in association with Butte County, (specifically Shelby Boston, the Director of the Department of Employment and Social Services), with an eye towards passing on the lessons learned by first responders, county workers, emergency planners and regular civilians. Our hope was to give these dearly earned bits of information to disaster planners and citizens all over the world, to help them prepare for whatever catastrophe they may face.
We were also heartened to have Action News Now do a story on the nomination and our director, Christopher Allan Smith. That can be seen HERE. Smith was nominated for another unrelated program as well.
Today’s update comes as I find myself a knot of emotions.
First, the personal update
I’m sure it’s a place familiar to fellow Camp Fire survivors. You find yourself coming across some happy surprise or some hard earned reward and realize with a pang it would not be possible if November 8, 2018 had been just another day.
For a moment you want to give up everything if that day could be turned into just another forgettable yesterday.
But it cannot, so we all work, to rebuild to tell our story, to pull something worthwhile out of all of this. Which brings me to our update:
Tomorrow I am going to the Sundance Film Festival to find people who might want to help the production of Three Days in Paradise, and also see Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise. I was lucky enough to serve as a field producer on his project, as that work so neatly paralleled the work we’re doing with Three Days.
For someone in my industry, this is the fulfillment of a dream. Having a meaningful credit on a Ron Howard film is exactly the kind of work I originally hoped to get into when I started my film career.
But I know there is no way any of this would be possible if an awful price had not been paid. The word “bittersweet” was invented for just this kind of occasion.
So that’s the personal update.
Now, the project update
Working on Three Days In Paradise has consumed most of the past year for me. It’s been the most exhilarating and excruciating creative experience of my life. And as I see more and more documentaries and specials come out about the Camp Fire and the experience of us on the Paradise Ridge, the more convinced I am the only way the whole story is getting told is for us to tell it.
We’ve all seen some very good documentaries, but even the best only tell a part of the story that impacted us all. And now that our story is being reflected across the globe —in the Amazon where glorious forests have burned—in Australia, were working class people and wild animals have fled waves of fire and animals of all kinds have perished—fires in Greece and Indonesia and… and… and… it’s apparent to me more than ever that something happened in Butte County that people the world over can recognize and relate to.
Like all meaningful stories, it’s small and personal and specific, but speaks to human experiences people of every land and language can understand.
So now I go to rattle the cup and plead for funds to finish. To give you an idea why and how (and to short circuit the inevitable carps on the internet about ‘getting rich’ from tragedy) here’s what a documentary of this scope requires, and this is what we have already done:
Our ambition is to tell story of the people of Paradise Ridge, the causes and effects of the Camp Fire and catastrophes like it in a thorough, emotional and definitive way. As I’ve told our crew, our aim is not to be the first, but to be the best. That kind of storytelling takes an immense amount of work.
What it takes to produce a documentary series
Ken Burns, an influence on the project and creator of multiple well-loved documentaries, released his latest documentary series, Country Music, this last fall. To produce it, Burns and his team…
Did 101 interviews spanning 175 hours.
They reviewed 100,000 photographs.
Of those, they put 30,000 into their editing database.
Of those, they chose 3,300 to go into the final film.
They also gathered/shot 1,000 hours of additional footage.
All of that produced 14 hours that is the definitive documentary on one genre of music.
What we’ve done so far:
To give you an idea of where we are:
We have conducted 45 interviews of survivors, first responders, public officials, and fire experts. We hope to interview at least that many more, to say nothing of the more interviews we want to do in association with the oral history needs of the Gold Nugget Museum.
We have gathered somewhere between 7,000 to 10,000 photos. We estimate the need to review 40,000 to 50,000 more spanning from the 1840s until literally today.
We’ve gathered (thank you friends and neighbors) and hundreds of pieces of privately shot video and film.
We have shot more videos that we can currently estimate, and will need to look through hundreds of hours of archival news station and other local footage stretching back to the beginning of television.
What that will produce is a 5-to-8 hour portrait of the towns in communities we loved–Paradise, Magalia, Concow–a meaningful understanding of why this disaster happened and even more: what tragedies like this do to break and build people.
We’re not doing this so much to find out why, but to find the meaning in all this and pass on what we’ve experienced to others. We know it will help when they face catastrophes of their own.
And I’m telling you, after having reviewed what we’ve done so far, we have found that meaning. I can’t wait to show you all.
So I begin my journey at Sundance to (hopefully) find the checkbook that will make sure our story is told right.
Finally, in a case of great minds thinking alike, we’ll be doing what Ev Duran is doing with his project: Every penny above and beyond the costs of production will be going to fund the rebuilding of the lives of fellow Camp Fire survivors.
One of the few pleasures coming out of the saga of the Camp Fire is coming across all the filmmakers dedicated to telling our stories. With 50,000 people fleeing for their lives in the course of a few hours, with over 150,000 people effected locally and thousands more around the state and the country, the number of stories is staggering.
That’s why every time I see a new filmmaker putting down the tasks of their lives to pick up a camera and tell the world what happened on the Paradise Ridge, I feel a little better.
I just got home from the premiere of one of these filmmakers, and this one is special. This one is made by one of us.
Tonight was the premiere of Ev Duran’s All Its Name Implies, a filmmaker from Paradise, who went to PHS and has been working this last year to produce a film, a love letter to Paradise, through the lens of his family, friends and those he knew.
I’m not going to pretend to be objective or dispassionate in my judgements. It meant a lot to see this, to visit again the Paradise we knew, and to know Ev put his life in Los Angeles on hold for the last year while he worked on this. And to know he’s working so hard to use this film to raise funds for Camp Fire survivors still in need.
Some are coming to Butte County to use us as props to burnish their own reputations. Others are doing the right thing, taking their talents and work and passions to lend a hand and they should be rewarded.
Ev is one of those trying to help. He’s one of us. So help him out. The box office for tonight’s premiere is being donated to those in need, as are the funds from the upcoming January showing.
So head over to these links and find out how to help, where you can see All Its Name Implies and what you can do to help a local boy make good.
This morning, I suspect the players and coaches of the Paradise High School Bobcats are unhappy, but they should be proud.
What they gave the communities of the Paradise Ridge is something better than a Championship. I hope they know it. Through their disappointment, I hope they hear this.
In researching for Three Days in Paradise, I’ve come across dozens of old west mining towns in Butte County’s early days. Most of them are unknown.
I’ve found one thing separates settlements which become communities and those that fade into ghost towns. It’s schools.
All budding towns open bars, general stores, hotels and even a town hall. It’s the ones with schools that remain. Schools aren’t for the towns of today. They and their students are the town of tomorrow… the citizens, leaders, business people who will enrich and improve the town long after all the founders are gone.
Schools and the families they make possible, are the thing that separates a collection of buildings from a civilized town. Schools are how a town shows hope.
In the days, weeks and months after the fire, I interviewed dozens and met hundreds of survivors, recovery workers and public and private leaders. On camera and off they talked about, worried about, wondered about whether a community like Paradise could rise from the blow we had taken.
Yes, people vowed to rebuild, some businesses opened, but in whispers and wonders from across the spectrum I heard real worries from smart, informed people about the possibility Paradise would fade.
Then the schools re-opened in August, and it was a good sign.
But for many, it was the first game of the Bobcat’s Football Season on August 23 which made what remained of Paradise feel like what we remembered of Paradise. As survivors watched, coached and played in ame after game, our battered optimism reasserted itself.
Listening to the cheers of the crowds, watching the exploits of Harrison and Blood, Bettencourt and Hartly, Velasquez and everyone else made Paradise feel like a hopeful, happy place again. Through every regular season game, they won, finishing with a 10-0 record.
Their run helped us remember we could do this. We could clear the debris, claw through the heartache and remember those we had lost, and could have a town that felt like a place again. The Bobcats brought our eyes to the horizon again and let reminded us there is something more than ash in the future.
So they the players and coaches may not have gone to where they wanted to go this year.
But they gave us all something more dear. To do that you have to be something better than a champion.
If you’re like me, the first anniversary of the Camp Fire was a cyclone of emotions.
There was shock that so much time had already passed and the shock that a whole year could feel like just a few days. The pain and bewilderment of the fire’s aftermath was made vivid again as the anniversary arrived, now mixed with an honest hope for the future and a bittersweet regret at all those who have been forced by economic and emotional circumstance to leave Butte County in the last 365 days.
And if you’re like me, only now are you really ready to talk openly. That’s why I’m writing today.
Since the one-year commemoration, I’ve noticed more survivors sharing their stories for the first time. I’ve also had more than a few say they will talk only to our Three Days in Paradise team, because we lived through it too.
I’m here to say we’re still here, we’re still listening, and we’re interested in hearing your stories as long as you’re content to share them.
While many documentaries have finished shooting and departed the county, Laura and I, along with our Three Days team, are still here. We’re living in Chico while our hearts remain on the ridge.
I know you or someone you know may have been too nervous or in too much pain to share your story of the Camp Fire over these last 12 months. Memories of the Ridge as it was may have been too much to talk about without tears.
Something about the first anniversary has prompted some people to finally share their experiences, and that’s why we’re still here.
We want to hear everyone’s stories. We want to know what happened to everyone, what is still happening, and where we go from here. And when our documentary series is done, when our interviews are donated to the Gold Nugget Museum, we want the world to hear our story and understand it as we do.
So if you or someone you know is only now wanting to talk, we’re here. If you find yourself chatting with loved ones over Thanksgiving dinner, at some Christmas party or some other holiday celebration, please keep us in mind.
We come today with the happy announcement long in the making: Our Three Days in Paradise production team has entered into an agreement with the Gold Nugget Museum to donate all materials contributed by the public to our production to the Museum poste haste.
That means anything you give to us to use in our series, to tell the local and larger stories of the Paradise Ridge and the Camp Fire, will find a home in the Gold Nugget. We’re proud and touched to be allowed to help in this small way to rebuild an institution that means so much to our Ridge.
We’re looking to do two things: 1). Help rebuild the historical images of the Ridge from the 1840s to November 7, 2018 and 2). Create the most complete, fully sourced archive of Camp Fire related images, video, audio and more.
That means we’re looking for everything: Phone videos, home videos, historical pictures, Polaroids, modern phone pics, Beta Tapes, VHS tapes, slides, news station footage & 8 mm films… Everything.
We will scan or digitize you originals and get them back to you. We will then pass on museum quality digital copies to the Museum for their archives.
We came to this decision when we realized the needs to make our series… historical images and what we all saw and heard on November 8 and in the aftermath, matched neatly with what the Museum would be needing for the future.
There are a few ways to get us footage.
1). If you’ve got physical images or material… video or audio tapes, home movies, old pictures, anything, give us a call (530-680-7125) or email and we’ll set up an appointment (Info@ThreeDaysInParadise.tv).
2). Get on our computer and go to this link and send us material via DropBox. When asked, enter your name and email (this will tag each video you upload with your name so we know who contributed it). Only we will see the video you send. Here’s the link: https://www.dropbox.com/request/XoKYqh7YQe5IHhPx1qPF
Apologies for the delay/working diligently/update coming soon.
Today I’m here for a quick favor.
Since the Camp Fire, we’ve all encountered film and video producers of all types. Some have come to use us to tell their story. Others are truly here to help us tell ours.
I’ve come to know and trust the crew from Imagine, headed by producer Xan Parker and co-producer Lizz Morhaim for director Ron Howard. They are good people. But if you’ve been lucky enough to meet them, as hundreds of us on the Ridge have, you don’t need me to tell you that.
So here’s the deal. To tell our story in documentary form, they need images. So many of you have helped my project, so let’s help them. Without pictures, video, film and sound, telling our story will be tough. So please join me in helping them.
They need our help to find video (cell phone or other) and photos. If you have anything on the list below, please reach out to me, or upload your material to Dropbox: http://bit.ly/ParadiseDocSubmission
Home movies shot in Paradise – 2000s or before
Gold Nugget Days – 2018 or before
November 8 (Evacuation and down in Chico that night)
November 9 (wherever you were)
November 11 meeting with PG&E
November 28 community meeting
Your first time going back to Paradise after the fire
Our June update comes at a time where, and it could just be us, the summer is starting with some harsh blows.
Maybe this month is not much different from those since the fire, and the hardships could just be a coincidence. But some rough run of luck seems on a tear for many of the Camp Fire survivors (us included, see below). Regardless, we’ll all push on together.
As we’ve all heard, Phil John, chair of the Paradise Fire Safe Council (and husband to Paradise Unified School District’s Superintendent Michelle John) passed away June 11.
As with many of our emotions these days, to pinpoint just why this event hit us harder than others is difficult to say. Maybe it’s that it’s the kind of normal heartbreak we all feel, but absorbing it under the shadow still cast by November 8 places just a few more straws on the camel’s back.
Or for us working on Three Days in Paradise, it’s echoed by more ‘normal’ heartbreaks on the home front. Producer Laura Smith (my peerless wife) has seen her father pass away May 26–two weeks before her mother moved into assisted living with Parkinson’s.
Then there was the development I’ve announced to the crew and now I’m letting you all know. I’ve been diagnosed with Bells Palsy, a temporary condition brought on by a variety of factors. While it’s stroke-like effect on the muscles of a person’s face can be unnerving, my doctors have expressed their hope for a full recovery (though it could take up to six months).
So what does this mean?
In the long run, nothing. We continue to work. We continue to write and edit. We continue to plan for more interviews (on top of the dozens we’ve already done).
We are still convinced Three Days in Paradise will be a documentary on Butte County and the Camp Fire unlike any other.
But in the short run, it’s taken some rescheduling while we consult with doctors about the best way forward in terms of recovery and work. The sizzle reel we’d hoped to release in June will now be out sometime in July. The push for funding (including showcasing some editing passages of various episodes of the series) will now be a few weeks later than originally hoped.
So we work while we mourn. We work while we heal. We push on because as we know, that’s what we all have to do now.