Howard's gripping documentary takes a different approach to covering a natural disaster: It focuses on the human spirit, not politics. For someone who grew up working primarily in fiction and features, Howard proves he's just as adept at creating a balanced, journalistic look at how a town recovers after a catastrophe. So many elements could be hard charged -- like climate change, blaming the government, or portraying PG&E (the California utility company found responsible for the blaze due to negligence) as corrupt and evil. These issues are mentioned, as they're part of the story, but they're not exploited. Rather, Howard keeps the attention on the people of Paradise: what they went through, how they survived, and how, for some, the hits just kept on coming long after the flames were extinguished.
Howard pulls viewers in immediately by putting them squarely in the residents' shoes. Beginning with the morning of November 8, 2018, you first hear the fire advisory warnings, then the first reports of a fire breaking out. The blaze spreads, growing closer, until -- watching through cellphone footage -- you're surrounded by the flames licking the side of your window. When escape finally comes, you can finally exhale as you hear a child in the back seat sobbing with relief. After those harrowing nine minutes, the film checks back in every few months as the school board administrator, a counselor, and a police officer try to get kids and the community back to some kind of normalcy without facilities. At the same time, residents share their struggles -- and it takes a while for things to get better. Remarkably, the small town comes together. Love replaces dissent. When obstacles arise, Howard gives viewers a glimpse at the other side. The city council angers residents by displacing them a second time, but we're able to see why the leaders had to make an unfair and difficult decision. When a PG&E spokesperson addresses the concerns of the town, the citizens rage -- but we're able to see the representative's nervousness and understand that he feels like he's been thrown to the wolves, overwhelmed and doing his best to provide assurance. Howard also reveals the earth science behind why the flames spread so fast, tracing back to a well-meaning state policy. Nobody -- not even "fire" -- is a villain here. Rather, the film is about understanding how a crisis occurs, the toll it takes on the survivors, how to recover, and how to prevent it from happening again.