Cartoonist Brian Fies in his studio. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

'A Fire Story' cartoonist Brian Fies on life after the Tubbs fire: Healing, moving back and what's next

Two years after the Tubbs fire burned his Santa Rosa home, cartoonist Brian Fies adjusts to his new life.

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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.”

As word spread about his book, the cartoonist found himself in demand for interviews and as a public speaker.

“I’ve been doing book tours and giving talks. Very often, I’m talking to people who have been through the same thing, even if they’re in some other city,” he said. “If I go to Los Angeles or Seattle or Portland, those cities have had fires, too. A lot of times, these talks of mine turn into little therapy sessions. Nerves are still raw up and down the West Coast. People’s emotions are on trip wires.”

At Feather River College at Quincy in Plumas County — where the Walker fire, reportedly California’s biggest wildfire so far this year, charred more than 50,000 acres in early September — “A Fire Story” is the campus “book in common” this fall.

“Basically, that means everybody in the college is going to read the book and they’re going to talk about it in their English classes, but also the art and science and environmental studies classes,” said Fies, who spoke on campus there in mid-September.

The new version of Fies’ home is not an exact replica, because the couple’s lives have changed in other ways since they originally bought the house in 2000. The couple’s twin daughters are 30 now and live together in Novato, where the artist and his wife stayed during the rebuild and found their own roles in the family somewhat changed.

“I was the only one working at home, so I made sure to have dinner on the table every night,” Fies said. “It was the first time we needed our daughters to help us with anything, and they really stepped up.”

And now, living and working in the second incarnation of his Santa Rosa home, the cartoonist finally has his own spacious studio for his work.

“For a long time, my studio was just a spare bedroom, but during our whole fire exile, I drew most of ‘A Fire Story’ on a board, sitting at a dining room table. I didn’t have a studio. I had a corner of the table.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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