Everyone in Sonoma and Napa counties remembers where they were on the night and early morning of October 8-9 of 2017. I had left the window open next to my bed and the gusting winds woke my wife up at about 1am. It was soon after that that we started to get texts about the growing fires to the north in Santa Rosa and to the east in Napa. There was a much smaller fire south of our house in Petaluma, but at the time we weren’t sure if it would grow to the sizes of the other fires. After a little deliberation and lot of smoke and ash in the air, we packed the kids in the car at about 6am and went to my parents’ house just to the south in Novato. And when we heard that the fire on Hwy 37 was mostly contained, we returned home and started to hear about friends and acquaintances who had lost their homes. We returned to a Sonoma County that would be changed forever.
Veteran comic artist Brian Fies had a far different experience from mine on that night. His graphic memoir, A Fire Story, tells of his and his wife Karen’s evacuation, return, and fight to rebuild. Rebuild a home, a life, and a mental psyche that were all damaged by the fires.
Fies relates his story mostly chronologically through the details of all the events the day of the fire and then the struggle to find a new normal afterwards. The mundane occurrences of a life: eating lunch, shopping for a hammer, caring for a pet… these all become tasks that in light of the stresses of the fire became so much more difficult. He includes the overwhelming tasks of cleaning up the site and trying to find parts of their lost life. But the fire is a collective misery. Fies finds great positivity in families and neighbors coming together for one another.
With artwork as varied as photographs, maps, and comic frames, the book is broken up to relate the disaster from many perspectives. He even includes a how-to guide instructing the reader on the art of digging up possessions from the ash. And most notably, he relates the stories of several others who were affected. These touching pieces are special on their own, but add a great depth to this work and illustrate how the fire cut across socioeconomic lines.
There are degrees of separation from tragedy. The people who watch on TV, the people who may know someone affected, and then there are the families whose lives are utterly and irrevocably changed by a disaster. Fies’s book is the connection that people need to make to an event of this magnitude. It is unfathomable for me to think about the details of starting over like he and his wife are having to do. This book is a testament to all those, rich and poor, who are forced to wake up one day and find their community forever changed.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
A video of the initial web comic with narration from Brian and his wife, Karen Fies, can be found here. It was produced by the San Francisco PBS station KQED and has been viewed over three million times.
Releases on March 5th.
Thank you to Edelweiss, Abrams ComicArts, and Brian Fies for the advanced copy for review.