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You've likely seen this ranch on-screen — burned by wildfire, it awaits its next act

Paramount Ranch, a frontier western town built as a movie set that appeared in countless movies and TV shows, was decimated by the Woolsey fire in Agoura Hills, Calif., in November 2018.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
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AP
Paramount Ranch, a frontier western town built as a movie set that appeared in countless movies and TV shows, was decimated by the Woolsey fire in Agoura Hills, Calif., in November 2018.

Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles served as a backdrop for movies and TV shows for nearly a century, from Klondike Annie starring Mae West in 1936, to the hit sci-fi drama series Westworld, shot around 80 years later.

One of the most famous parts of the Ranch was Western Town. The purpose-built setting for movie and TV production dating back to the 1950s had dirt streets and quaint wooden buildings including a hotel, mercantile and saloon.

"You basically walked in and it was ready to shoot," said Amelia Brooke, a Hollywood art director whose credits include Everything Everywhere All at Once. "You can focus on the story that you're telling, as opposed to all of the money that you're sinking into the surrounding sets."

This 2015 photo shows Paramount Ranch before the Woolsey Fire.
John Antczak / AP
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AP
This 2015 photo shows Paramount Ranch before the Woolsey Fire.

The Woolsey Fire incinerated most of Western Town's flimsy pastel-colored structures in 2018 along with other older buildings related to the Paramount Pictures production era of the 1920s-40s. Now Paramount Ranch, which is part of the National Park Service's Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, is being rebuilt to be functional while being able to withstand the perils of future climate change-driven disasters.

Brooke shared fond memories of working at the ranch on a Wild West-themed episode of the comedy series Adam Ruins Everything. The art director said she particularly appreciated how the public could stop by anytime to watch the TV and filmmaking process in action.

"Everything that we create is for an audience," Brooke said. "So having an audience be able to easily access Western Town was really special."

When Brooke learned Western Town won't be rebuilt she was understandably upset.

"I was like, 'well, we can't go back and do that again,' " Brooke said.

Rebuilding the past for the future

In August, the Biden Administration announced $44 million in funds to prepare and strengthen the country's national park system for climate change. Global warming brought on primarily by the burning of fossil fuels is causing increasing levels of devastation to cultural heritage. The National Park Service, which is charged with caring for these landmarks, is having to make difficult decisions about what to save — and what to let go.

The National Park Service is currently rebuilding parts of Paramount Ranch, with a goal to bring film and TV shoots back to the location by 2025. Earlier this month, construction crews started work at the site.

"We're doing something called rehabilitation," said David Szymanski, park superintendent at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "We only put things in the same places that they would've been historically, and they should be about the same size and similar appearance — without seeming to be a recreation."

Paramount Ranch, pictured after the wildfire on Nov. 9, 2018.
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
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AP
Paramount Ranch, pictured after the wildfire on Nov. 9, 2018.

Szymanski said the plans include erecting barn-like structures on the footprints of four of the historic buildings from the Paramount era. He said the new buildings will be basic yet flexible, so production companies can adapt them to suit their needs.

Unlike the old, wooden buildings, the new ones will be made out of fire-resilient materials like concrete and cement board. Surrounding vegetation, like trees and grass, will be kept well back to further reduce flammability.

"We're not trying to recreate the 1920s or the 1940s, but one of the best ways to preserve a historic place is to continue doing what was done there historically," said Szymanski. "And for us here, that is film."

Deciding what to save — and what to let go

Efforts to conserve historic landmarks have traditionally focused on keeping them close to what they looked like in the past. That's becoming an increasingly untenable notion, explained Marcy Rockman, a researcher and consultant in Washington DC who works at the intersection of climate change and cultural heritage. "Our whole mandate is we try to keep it unchanging. We try to preserve it exactly as it is," Rockman said. "That is really hard to do under climate change."

A sign at the Paramount Ranch explains the recovery efforts.
/ NPS
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NPS
A sign at the Paramount Ranch explains the recovery efforts.

Rockman, who served as the National Park Service's climate change adaptation coordinator for cultural resources for seven years until 2018, said there are various ways to plan for the future of cultural heritage in the face of human-caused climate change, from moving a landmark out of harm's way to making a deliberate choice to do nothing about it.

"It's not just benign neglect," Rockman said. "But it's saying, 'We have looked at what the vulnerability of this place is. And it would take so many resources to try to hold back whatever forces are happening. We are going to let it go.' "

Other experts question whether it's worth rebuilding anything in a wildfire or flood-prone zone at all.

"Why are we reconstructing things?," said the Sarasota, Fla.-based architect and historic preservationist, Marty Hylton. "Why aren't we focusing on relocating things, or at least documenting them before they're gone?"

Hylton said digitizing or documenting cultural treasures before they disappear in a climate change-related disaster should become a priority for custodians of cultural heritage.

In 2012, Hylton launched the "Envision Heritage" program at the University of Florida, which uses 3D digital imaging tools to document and preserve historic environments.

"We're much more focused on cultural memory and other values today, and perhaps less on material authenticity," Hylton said.

Western Town is not coming back

At Paramount Ranch, superintendent Szymanski said he's had to get comfortable with different outcomes.

"We've been pretty choosy about what we rebuild, and not replacing everything," Szymanski said.

Davis Szymanski is park superintendent at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Chloe Veltman / NPR
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NPR
Davis Szymanski is park superintendent at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Congress appropriated $22 million worth of disaster relief funds in 2019 for the rehabilitation work at the site. That money only goes so far. Szymanski said the agency has had to make some tough — and even unpopular — decisions, including choosing not to bring Western Town back.

Only two of Western Town's structures survived the Woolsey Fire: the little chapel from Westworld and the train depot built for the 1990s western TV drama Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.

The National Park Service said it's not planning to rebuild these structures if they get taken out next time there's a fire. But they will live on in the many films and TV shows that were shot at Paramount Ranch.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.

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