Wednesday, September 13, 2023

A Fire Story: Brian Fies

From the dust jacket on my edition:

Early in the morning on Monday, October 9, 2017, wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. In addition, 8,900 structures, including more than 6,200 homes, were destroyed. One of those homes belonged to author and illustrator Brian Fies’ and his family.  In the days that followed, Fies hastily pulled together a firsthand account of his experience in a twenty-page online comic entitled A Fire Story, that went viral.

The version of A Fire Story that was published online was a short webcomic (which is included at the end of the book). In 2019, Brian Fies published this expanded version of the story, adding more of his and his family's experiences following the fire, and a few sections on other people who lost homes due to the fire and their experiences.

Brian Fies' book does a very good job of conveying the stress that the victims of the fires had to deal with, and the unimaginable sadness of losing not just your home but everything in it. In some fires, the people in the paths of the fire have enough warning to gather some important possessions, but that was not the case here. 

I found it interesting that Brian Fies and his wife Karen went directly to her work place when they left their home and got safely out of the path of the fire. That made sense because she was the Director of Sonoma County Human Services and part of the County Emergency Response Team. And it had a backup generator, telephones, and internet. She ended up working there on coordinating emergency resources for the next 16 hours. 

My favorite parts were the wonderful, detailed sections telling the stories of other people who lost homes due to the fire and their varied experiences of finding a place to stay afterward and replacing their homes. There was Michael W. Harkins, a journalist and media consultant, who actually stayed and tried to save his house, unsuccessfully. And Dorothy Hughes, a senior who lived in a mobile home park. Her home was one of 44 in the park that survived the fire but she was never able to move back in. 

There is a very good review of the book at the Los Angeles Times. I am including a few paragraphs because I am not sure if the article can be read without a subscription.

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.

Although my husband and I have been affected by wildfires in our area for many years, we have never been anywhere close to the type of devastation depicted in this book. In 1990, we had to evacuate due to the Painted Cave fire, which came down from the Santa Ynez mountains, jumped the freeway, and burned some homes close to where we lived. We were scared and for a short time I was separated from my husband and son when they had difficulty accessing any routes to our home. But we were only away from our home for one night after evacuating. We were very lucky. And that was before wildfires in Southern California became so prevalent and so damaging.


Publisher:   Harry N. Abrams, 2019.
Length:       154 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Genre:       Graphic nonfiction
Source:      On my TBR for four years.


pattinase (abbott) said...

So interesting, Tracy. Thanks for sharing.
We had a fire in the building last night. The third one. All have been minor. Going down eight flights of steps makes me dizzy but going up would be worse.

Cath said...

I think this would make for a fascinaing read for people like me that have no experience of wildfires apart from what we see on TV. Very interesting to hear of your rather frightening experiences! These fires seem to be bad everywhere these days, Canada seems to have been on fire for months and in Europe, Greece has had an horrific time, terrible fires and now floods.

Todd Mason said...

Best of luck never having this problem again, Tracy. Flooding from various causes was always the problem in my family's houses over the decades, and in Alice's and my house here (and my, and my and Donna's, apartments over the years)...the only place I left Hawaii for in 1979-84 was a family visit to Alaska, my birth state, to see family and my parents' friends up there, in 1981, and we drove/rode in a rental car from Anchorage to Fairbanks, through about 500 miles of charred cinders of the forests that had burned along the Al-Can highway in '80...sad that the mud flats were about the only more or less "healthy" scenery on the trip.

Thanks for the pointers here. I think the CBS FIRE COUNTRY tv series is benefitting from not only being in the same ballpark as YELLOWSTONE dramatically, but also in tapping in to the free-floating (and road-jumping) anxiety homeowners and others are constantly feeling these years...

Todd Mason said...

Double-checked it. It was "only" 360 miles, more or less.

Todd Mason said...

And the Al-Can is Rt. 1...the much more direct highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks is Rt. 3. How the details blur!

TracyK said...

Patti, I would be afraid of fires in apartment buildings, but of course they can happen anywhere. Stairs are a problem for me too. Going down I get vertigo (and sometimes going up also, if the stairs are steep). Going up, my legs have never done well with stairs, even when I was young. Good exercise though, if you can handle it.

Margot Kinberg said...

What a frightening thing a wildfire is, Tracy. I've never had an evacuation order, but we've been within a mile of a mandatory evac, and it's really scary. I think this is an effective way to share the stories of people who've lived through these disasters, and an interesting medium to use, too.

Todd Mason said...

Indeed, Patti, sorry it's been so frequent in the new building. Even if the dangers (aside from stairwell traversal) have been negligible.

Had one fire alarm to deal with in one of our apartment buildings, Alice's and my first in Philly, the Packard Motor Car Building. The doorwoman, who saw me as one of the more responsible tenants (I would check on the doorpeople when there was a gunshot nearby on Broad St), asked me to knock on some doors that hadn't been evacuated yet. Groggily did so (she was otherwise alone among middle of the night support staff).

TracyK said...

Cath, be thankful you have not had exposure to wildfires. It is amazing how unpredictable they are and how fast they spread. And even if you are not affected directly by the fire, the air quality is horrible.

The book is very interesting. Especially to hear first hand accounts of the aftermath. During the Tubbs fire, which is the one covered in this book primarily, the man who worked in the office next to mine had relatives in Santa Rosa. His mother had to evacuate but did not lose her home. However, it was a long time before she could back in, even for a brief check.

Lark said...

This sounds like a good one! All those big California wildfires are so scary and devastating. I'd definitely me moving if I lived there.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, thank you for alerting us to this graphic novel and your own experience with wildfires. It must have been so scary and so glad you made it through. I think what happens with many of these natural disasters is that people wait too long to evacuate and its kind of understandable. One's home is ne's shelter and security and many people don't have the resources to start all over. But as with floods fires can travel so quickly and that's why one must move if they see danger.

TracyK said...

Todd, Back when I worked at a publishing co in Santa Barbara, one of my coworkers had supported himself while going to college by fire fighting in Alaska during the summer. He used to talk about driving the AL-Can highway.

Fortunately, flooding is something I have not experienced.

TracyK said...

Lark, when we were looking for a condominium in Santa Barbara (twenty five years ago) we rejected one because it looked like it could easily be in the path of a fire. Another one we looked at was in a group of condominiums that had been burned after the Painted Cave fire and rebuilt. But at that time fires happened much less often and seemed to be less of a threat.

TracyK said...

Margot, A Fire Story does a great job of depicting all aspects of a fire. It was a very moving story.

It is scary to have experienced the nearness of big fires, isn't it? It keeps you on your toes and we tried to be prepared ahead of time.

TracyK said...

Kathy, You are right, preparedness is important. If you get warning, which we have always had with all the fires near us, it makes all the difference. Unfortunately I have read of some fires where people got no warning before the fire was practically on top of them.

And actually I have now remembered that there have been problems with flooding in some Santa Barbara County areas, just not near to us. In Montecito, there were floods and deadly mudslides in areas below burn areas in 2018. It was devastating.

Sam said...

Tracy, I can't begin to imagine the terror that wildfire victims must feel when they realize they are trapped in place. This sounds like an excellent book written by someone who knows exactly what that feeling is like.

I'm curious about your feelings about the lack of forest maintenance that California authorities profess so loudly to be in favor of...and whether you and others on the ground believe that this may have made matter much worse for everyone, and even for the environment, rather than better. That's the theory "sold" in this part of the country.

TracyK said...

Sam, Having just seen over the hill from the area I lived in, I have a hard time imagining the panic that comes when you realize it is so close you barely have time to get out in time. This book helped to convey how that and the aftermath would feel.

I don't really know that much about the state of forest management in California, but from the little I have read recently, I can see that it will be a huge effort to make changes in that area. I do know that I would not live in high risk areas that are very close to the forests and constantly threatened with fire every year. My dental hygienist lives in such an area in the hills above Santa Barbara, and over the years she has told us of her "adventures" with threats of fire and bad weather. Not for me.