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Leave it to Santa Rosa cartoonist Brian Fies, whose graphic novel memoir “A Fire Story” chronicled the loss of his home in the disastrous Tubbs fire of October 2017, to express the lingering emotional aftermath of that event powerfully and succinctly.
One caption from a new page that Fies created for an expanded paperback edition of the book, due out in the fall of 2020, says it all:
“You focus so long and so hard on rebuilding that you only realize, after moving in, that it doesn’t magically fix everything.”
In late March, nearly 18 months after Fies and his wife Karen fled the wildfire that destroyed roughly 3,000 Santa Rosa homes and more than 5,300 countywide, they finally moved back in.
They were only the fourth family at that time to do so in their Mark West Estates neighborhood, where some 200 homes were lost.
“It looks very familiar to me here,” Fies said as he showed a recent visitor around the two-story house, rebuilt from the ground up. “It looks like home. It’s just a matter of taking the time to make new memories here.”
And yet, there is no forgetting the terror of that night, the devastation it left behind, the long struggle to get back home or the lingering loneliness of a neighborhood that’s still half-vacant, with many houses still in various stages of reconstruction.
“It’s awful dark and quiet out here when you don’t have many neighbors. There are deer and jackrabbits running all over the place. It’s a little wild,” Fies said. “I feel like we’re living in this patchwork, Frankenstein’s monster of a neighborhood, half alive and half dead. The lot next to me is empty. There are still dead trees around. There are still pockmarks in the street where our garbage cans melted. I kind of hope they don’t fix the street. I like having that little scar on the pavement there. That means something. I don’t know what.”
Perhaps it means that the sites savaged by fire will eventually be healed physically, but the people who live and work there will never forget.
“When we sifted through the ashes after the fire, Karen and I collected anything recognizable, wrapped it up in newspaper and put it in a plastic bin to save,” Fies remembered. “Now it’s almost two years after the fire, and just a week or two ago, I sat down to go through one of those bins. I opened the lid, and I started to unwrap the paper and I noticed the newspaper had the date — whatever it was, a couple of weeks after the fire — and I just couldn’t do anymore. I just I had to stop and put the lid back on. I wasn’t ready. I don’t know if and when I will be.”
Fies, 59, a freelance writer and artist, had already published two previous books in cartoon form, in 2009 and 2012, but “A Fire Story” is the one that changed his life and career.
“Right after the fire, about two days after, I started working on the web comic version, and those were the 18 pages that The Press Democrat printed. I put it online and it went viral. Then that was animated by KQED and won an Emmy Award,” Fies recalled. “In the months after that, I worked on a hardback book version of it, which is 160 pages and was published last March. That’s a hardcover by Abrams Books.”