A Fire Story: Santa Rosa cartoonist draws comic about fire that destroyed his family's home
Editor's Note: "A Fire Story," by cartoonist Brian Fies, is in the gallery above. Some of the content is graphic, and contains adult language. The editors at The Press Democrat weighed the value of authenticity in the work in this unprecedented community disaster against the potential for causing offense in some readers. Despite its raw nature, we opted to present the artist's work in unedited form. The comic slideshow above is not appropriate for children, and may require adult supervision.
Two things came together for cartoonist Brian Fies after the Tubbs fire destroyed his family's home three weeks ago - his tendency to process trauma through drawing comics and his lifelong love of telling a story, even if it is a painful story to tell.
Like thousands of residents in Santa Rosa and much of the North Coast, Fies, 57, was forced to hastily pack up and evacuate his own home on in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 9. The next day, in a mix of exhaustion and anxiety, he found himself in Target buying shoes. Next thing he knew, he had wandered into the art supplies aisle and was collecting up some paper and pens. Within a few hours, he started inking a poignant account of how he and his wife, Sonoma County Social Services Director Karen Fies, fled their Mark West Estates home.
That comic, called “A Fire Story,” which has generated more than a half-million page views between Fies' blog and various online publications, captured, in both subtle and heart wrenching ways, a horror that by now has generated volumes.
Having worked as a news reporter early in his career, Fies said that storytelling with details, words and images still comes naturally.
“What I was doing when I made the comic was doing first-person journalism from a disaster,” said Fies, who worked as a news reporter early in his career. “That's what it felt like to me; it felt like being a reporter again.”
And crafting a story, with a chronology and key details, offered a side benefit in the days surrounding the fires. “I cartoon to process things,” Fies said. “It gives me control over this little piece of a situation I have otherwise zero control over. I can't fix the fire. I can't fix my house. But I'm in control of this cartoon, in command of my own story.”
The Fies, who are “bunking” with their twin daughters Robin and Laura at their home in Novato, recently signed a long-term lease for a rental on the west side of Sonoma County. They've bounced around from place to place, trying to stay ahead of the chaos.
Like many other county leaders, Karen Fies has been putting in long hours responding to the social services needs of a community in crisis. Some of that work is documented in the comic strip.
Fies grew up in Rapid City, S.D., but moved to Santa Rosa when he was in the 8th grade. He attended Herbert Slater Middle School and graduated from Montgomery High School.
He received a degree in physics from UC Davis, where he met Karen, a native of San Jose. Fies has had a lot of different careers but has worked as a science writer for many years, reporting and writing articles for companies in the energy industry.
He started writing cartooning professionally in 2003, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. His web-based comic of that ordeal, "Mom's Cancer," went viral and earned him an Eisner Award. Fies' work can be viewed on his blog, The Fies Files, at brianfies.blogspot.com. His childhood dream of becoming a comic book artist was fueled Superman and Batman comics, and of course, the Peanuts strip. His favorite comic book artists and newspaper cartoonists include Neal Adams, Milt Caniff and Winsor McCay, a comic strip artist and early animation pioneer. “There's something about the combination of words and pictures that struck me very powerfully,” he said. “When comics are done right. It's an amazingly effective medium of communication.”
Fies has had to cope with the loss of not only his home but all of his original artwork that was inside. Like many residents in the aftermath of the flames, he has been sorting through embers this past week with a screen mesh. “There's kind of diminishing returns now,” he said on Thursday.
As for the future of "A Fire Story," Fies said he'll wait and see if more frames come to mind. “It's too soon to know if I'll want to expand it. It's gonna have to be that something weird or surprising or troubling catches my attention. Probably not in the near term, but maybe ... maybe in the far term.”
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @renofish.