Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 1, 2020.

Documenting Wildfire

A Netflix documentary film, Fire in Paradise, generates Oscar buzz and joins a growing list of movies on the 2018 Camp Fire


Northern California is no stranger to the conditions that prime an area for a massive wildfire—hot and dry weather with high winds. But on November 8, 2018, as those conditions descended on Butte County and a red flag warning took hold in the area, volunteer firefighter Ray Johnson had a bad feeling about what was occurring. “In my mind, it just didn’t feel right,” he says.

Johnson’s intuition proved accurate. By the end of the month, Butte County had become the site of the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever, the Camp Fire, which tore through the towns of Paradise, Concow, Magalia, and Pulga, killing 88 people, destroying some 14,000 homes, and torching more than 150,000 acres of land.

Johnson is one of several first responders and survivors of the fire to tell their stories in a new Netflix documentary on the Camp Fire, Fire in Paradise. The 40-minute doc dropped on the streaming service in November, one year after the historic blaze, and quickly generated rave reviews, with sources calling it “unforgettable,” “nerve-racking,” and “powerfully visceral.”

Directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari, the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September. The following month it took home the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Hamptons International Film Festival, which according to film industry and review website IndieWire positions it as a potential Oscar nominee. The 2020 Academy Awards is scheduled to air on February 9.

“It’s meant to put people in the shoes of the characters and what it was like to be there that day,” Canepari said of the film in an October interview with SF Weekly. “It was a traumatic, emotional event.” What the documentary tries to accomplish, Cooper added, is to make people realize that wildfire can happen anywhere, and they need to be ready for it. “Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s happening over there, it can’t happen here,’” he said.

Watch a trailer for the new Netflix documentary film, Fire in Paradise

With no narration, Fire in Paradise is carried solely by a seamless string of powerful survival stories, including the tale of a school bus full of children threatened by the raging fire, as told by two teachers who were on the bus.

As smoke started making its way inside the vehicle, the students began getting sleepy, with some of the younger ones falling asleep, the teachers recall in the film. The bus driver removed his shirt and cut it into little pieces so they could fashion makeshift filtration devices for the children to breathe through. The situation became increasingly dire, with an intense orange glow encroaching on the bus, as shown in the film through cell phone footage captured during the incident. The teachers began praying for what they thought was the best possible outcome—a nonpainful death. “It’s hard to say this out loud, but we prayed that we would die of smoke inhalation,” one of the teachers, Mary Ludwig, says in the film.

Cooper and Canepari’s work joins a list of several other documentary films that have been released on the Camp Fire. On October 29, PBS broadcast a documentary by the same name for its Frontline series. That 54-minute film, which is available for free on, followed a documentary PBS broadcast in May for its NOVA series called Inside the Megafire, which took a more scientific approach to chronicling the Camp Fire.

Both the Netflix and Frontline documentaries conclude with chilling reminders that California’s increasingly frequent and powerful wildfires show no signs of slowing in coming years. “The costs have changed, the risks have changed,” climate scientist Michael Wara says in the Frontline film.

To read the January 2019 NFPA Journal account of the Camp Fire, which details the factors that combined to make it so deadly and destructive, go to

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images