Brian Fies and his wife lost their Santa Rosa home in the California wildfires
They had 15 minutes to save what they could and evacuate
Fies documented their experience in a comic
Brian Fies sat down with some Sharpies and some paper to process his pain the way he knows best.
He began to draw.
The result is “A Fire Story,” an 18-page web comic that recounts the heart-wrenching devastation the California wildfires has wrought.
It details how 50 mph winds turned the Tubbs Fire into a “napalm tsunami.” How the blaze devoured his family’s home in Santa Rosa, leaving it a heap of burned ash. How all that’s left for survivors like him is to inventory prized possessions they’ll never see again.
“I was just compelled to do it and I did it really quickly,” he told CNN.
Fies (pronounced ‘Feez’) is a graphic novelist, one of the best in his field. A few years ago, when his mom was battling terminal cancer, he processed his grief by writing the web comic “Mom’s Cancer.” It won an Eisner Award, one of the comic world’s highest achievements.
Now he’s had to do it all over again.
The web comic begins when his wife woke up smelling smoke.
Fies said that when they went to bed the night before, the fire was 30 miles away.
“It wasn’t in our minds at all. It was just another fire over the hill in another county,” he said.
When they realized what was happening, Fies and his wife Karen grabbed their dog and cat, important papers, computer backups, photo albums and other keepsakes. They also saved Boo Boo Bear and Piglet, their twin daughters’ favorite childhood stuffed animals.
“We had about 15 minutes to throw our lives in the back of our car,” he said.
At dawn, he went back to check on the house. He parked near a police roadblock and walked into his neighborhood. He wasn’t really supposed to be there, but no one stopped him.
Fies described “inhaling other people’s lives” as he trudged through the smoke.
He rounded a corner and realized the house he’d lived in for 17 years was gone.
“That corner was about 3 blocks from my house and all I saw in front of me was a featureless smoking plain,” he said.
Fies hasn’t been able to return to his house since then. So the family has focused on the day-to-day tasks that just have to get done.
Fies’ wife is the director of the Sonoma County Human Services Office. She’s been busy at work making sure clients get their food stamps and other assistance and making sure all of the foster children under the county’s care are safe. He’s been filling out forms and shopping for necessities.
He said it was the strangest feeling to know that you need everything and nothing at the same time.
Fies said evacuees could recognize each other in the store just by looking at each others’ shopping carts.
“It’s only stuff you would buy if you left your house with nothing the night before,” he said.
Despite their losses, Fies says he and his wife feel incredibly lucky that they are safe and were able to save as much as they could.
The community has been incredibly kind and supportive.
“It’s made me feel a little better about people,” he said.
Fies is looking for a rental place while he figures out what to do next.
“We’re inclined to rebuild. We love that neighborhood, but we don’t know how to do that yet,” he said.
Fies said it would normally take him a few weeks to write, pencil and ink a comic like this, but he did this in just four days, with Sharpies, a bad brush pen and whatever art supplies he could find at Target, the only store he found open in 20 miles.
“I made this comic because I wanted to bear witness,” he said. “And this medium is the best way I know to tell a story.”