In the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 9, 2017, just after violently sprawling wildfires raced through Napa and Sonoma counties and yielded rush evacuations of tens of thousands of people, the house that Brian Fies shared with his wife, Karen, burned to the ground.
The couple escaped unharmed — physically, at least.
After corralling their pets and cramming everything else that would fit into their Prius, the Fieses fled their neighborhood, which was nestled along a creek that runs through the Mayacamas Mountains. From there, they stowed away at Karen’s office. As director of Sonoma County Human Services’ emergency response, she spent the next dozen-plus hours coordinating disaster plans for one of eight counties ravaged by fires that would destroy 8,900 structures and kill 44 people by the end of the year.
When the pair found shelter at the home of their grown twin daughters, Robin and Laura, they bought some essentials they hadn’t been able to pack. Brian picked up some bargain art supplies, and then the award-winning cartoonist and writer got to work on recording the week’s harrowing events as best he knew how: in comics.
“A Fire Story” is a victim’s testimony as well as a journalistic endeavor.
“On Monday, my house disappeared,” begins the 18-page comic drawn and hand-lettered by Fies over four days that October. He hastily chronicled the couple’s losing their home to wildfires in spare, somewhat smudgy but deftly composed panels. Swathes of orange highlighter sporadically breached border framing lines and flooded the backgrounds, harking back to the raging firestorm that rendered the sky oven-element orange and swallowed up the street they lived on.
Despite Fies’ disclaimer that the comic wasn’t up to his “usual standards” when he posted JPGs of the new strip on his blog, his work went viral, just as his Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir webcomic, “Mom’s Cancer” had in 2004. Navigating attention from local TV teams and huge media organizations wasn’t easy for the artist, specifically after having just lost nearly everything he’d ever owned.
“Karen and I were dealing with a mind-numbing disaster while I was also hosting reporters and TV crews in our daughters’ little apartment,” remembers Fies in the expanded “A Fire Story.”
Rooted in Fies’ webcomic, the book-length graphic account details life during and after the second-most destructive wildfire in California history. Now refined and enriched with more color and detail, opening pages depict their house’s silhouetted exterior and adjacent shrubbery, rimmed in carrot orange against an ash- and beige-streaked horizon. Karen smells smoke and from their bedroom window monitors a glowing sky that Brian attributes to “just the Calistoga fire.”
“I’m sure everything’s fine,” he assures his wife. “We haven’t gotten any phone alerts!”
Seventy mph winds that night ushered the fire that began near Tubbs Lane toward the Fieses’ front door, which was north of Santa Rosa. For the couple and thousands of other Californians, nothing would ever be the same again. Following a tense sequence that has the cartoonist and his wife springing from bed and frantically hauling belongings out to their driveway and the palpable heartbreak that materializes later when Fies scouts out their rubble-strewn streets, “A Fire Story” shares lesser-broadcast hardships as well as how quickly wildfire victims are expected to process a frenzied cycle of emotions.
A drawn five-key keychain has three keys that “don’t do anything anymore,” explains Fies in a caption. Homes elsewhere are reduced to wholly blacked-out, cross-hatched blots on stretches of sepia-toned blocks that look like a war zone, where neighbors comb the charred ruins of their houses’ foundations. Discussions with utility companies prove pointless. A tally of long-gone items on a single-panel page is slugged “Things I Will Never See Again.” But a vulnerable Fies doesn’t grieve alone — the careful accounting here culminates in what’s better described as a work of comics journalism than it is autobiography.
Aesthetically reminiscent of Sarah Glidden’s nonfiction works or Josh Neufeld’s reporting on Hurricane Katrina, “A Fire Story” utilizes the techniques typically practiced by those working in the comics medium — sequential art, word balloons — to present a rich newsworthy story. Fies’ sparsely embellished but expressive figures don monochrome apparel and populate uncomplicated building interiors. He produces explanatory diagrams about fire science and dissects a county’s flawed emergency response program. An integration of digital photos and satellite imagery of Northern California — while discordant at first, clashing with the otherwise clean lines and minimal illustrative style — beckon us in as observers and news consumers.
Just as it was in its earliest iteration — a webcomic paired with brief reports of adjacent firestorm-related tragedies and labeled “a first-person report from the front line of a disaster” — “A Fire Story” is a victim’s testimony as well as a journalistic endeavor. The most traditional examples of the latter materialize in illuminating print journalism-style profiles of other wildfire victims.
Fies splits up his book’s straight comics narrative with text-filled magazine-style features that span two or three pages each. He reports on Dorothy Hughes, whose street in Journey’s End was preemptively hosed down by firefighters, as well as on Fountaingrove’s Jerry Dunn, who feared his car would catch fire beneath a shower of embers as he took to his evacuation route. An illustration of the subject launches each piece, while ensuing paragraphs are adorned with bold section heads and pull quotes inside pastel boxes, setting them off from a wealth of body copy. It’s the most prominent structural evolution from the comic’s humble beginnings as scanned dispatches posted to a Blogspot account. But even then, there was a broader tale to tell.
“Although this Fire Story is a graphic memoir, it isn’t just my story,” writes Fies. “It’s the story of thousands of people who lost everything, and hundreds of thousands who were affected less directly but still traumatically. Compared to the enormity of that universal experience, my particular unique situation was irrelevant.”
Abrams ComicArts; 160 pp., $24.99
Umile’s writing has appeared at Hyperallergic, the Chicago Reader, the Washington City Paper and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.