How to Memorialize Our Fire Story, A Conversation with Author Brian Fies
“Art doesn’t seem very important in an event like this. And yet sometimes, it’s the thing that lasts the longest and means the most.” –Brian Fies
Wildfires are devastating. They destroy homes, businesses, and sometimes even entire communities. And when they’re over, what’s left is often a wasteland of charred earth and blackened trees. In a few minutes, everything you’ve built has burned to the ground, without having the chance to say goodbye. But the most painful thing is to be forced to move on when you’re still grieving your loss. They say it’s just stuff, but it’s your life embedded in them.
But as much as you want to, there’s no going back. You can only build a new life. And in this new life, it’s important to remember and tell your story. One way to memorialize your story is through art. It’s a way to connect with others who have gone through something similar and help them heal. Author, artist, and fire survivor Brain Fies and his family were one of the thousands who lost their home during the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Four years later, he still continues to inspire others through his art.
Tune in as Brian relates the painful events of that day and how being an artist enabled him to be a source of strength for his family and others who have gone through the same experience. Jennifer and Brian also discuss the wisdom found in following building codes and landscaping, how climate change plays a huge role in these global wildfires, the demarcations of life before and after the fire, controlling your fire narrative, allowing yourself time to grieve, and the role of an artist in disaster recovery.
As an artist or journalist, you have a powerful voice. Let your story be a source of healing for yourself and your community.
- 02:12: Breathing Thy Neighbors’ Lives
- 06:27: Unbelievable Things That Fire Can Do
- 12:49: Control the Fire Narrative
- 17:24: Grieve- You Have To
- 22:38: From the Eyes of a Fire Survivor
- 31:42: The Exact Perfect Word
- 37:39: The Role of an Artist in Disaster Recovery
- 41:30: Before and After the Fire
- 46:04: A Fire Story is a Climate Change Story
- 52:37: It Takes Time
- How Brian Fies used art to process a devastating wildfire
- A Santa Rosa Cartoonist’s ‘Fire Story’ Comes to Life | KQED Arts
Books by Brian Fies
00:51: “The people in the public sector who lost their homes also had to perform very heroically all night long.” -Jennifer Thompson
04:58: “I was walking along and I realized I was inhaling my neighbor’s lives. Whatever their lives were made out of was in that smoke, in that dust, the ash that was in the air.” –Brian Fies
09:16: “None of us are exempt no matter where we live from the dangers of losing our home in an ember cast.” -Jennifer Thompson
13:23: “Everything out there is out of my control. I can’t stop this fire, but I can control how I tell the story of the fire narrative.” –Brian Fies
18:04: “Your life meant something and it was worth grieving over. The life you have now is worth nurturing and pushing forward in the way that it should be. But don’t let anybody take away your grief for the life that you had.” -Jennifer Thompson
18:30: “There’s no right or wrong reaction. You do what you have to do to get through it. You make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time.” –Brian Fies
20:46: “Give people the resources to determine what they need for themselves.” –Brian Fies
37:43: “Art doesn’t seem very important in an event like this. And yet sometimes, it’s the thing that lasts the longest and means the most.” –Brian Fies
39:14: “Journalism is how we tell our stories. It’s how we remember things; how we process them.” –Brian Fies
44:42: “You don’t go back. You don’t. But you can reimagine how you would like it to be next.” -Jennifer Thompson
53:09: “The spotlight goes away, but the trauma, the suffering, and the dealing with things goes on.” –Brian Fies
Brian Fies is a writer and cartoonist. The day after he and his wife, Karen, lost their home in northern California’s Tubbs fire, Brian began writing and drawing A Fire Story. Posted online, the comic went viral, and was seen by more than 3 million people. In June 2018, an animated version of his original Fire Story webcomic produced by San Francisco PBS station KQED won an Emmy Award. Brian expanded A Fire Story into a full-length graphic novel published by Abrams ComicArts in 2019; an updated and expanded edition was published in 2021. His other graphic novels are Mom’s Cancer, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, and The Last Mechanical Monster. Brian’s work in comics has received several honors, including the comics industry’s Eisner, Harvey and Inkpot awards, as well as the American Astronautical Society’s Emme Award, Germany’s Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis. He lives in his rebuilt home north of Santa Rosa.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So once again, I’m so excited to have Brian Fies on the podcast. I worked with Brian’s wife at the County of Sonoma, Karen, when the fires happened. And I think one of the huge values and lessons that came out of that experience was not only getting to know people like Brian who could express his story in this other empathetic way. But also, it really drove home, and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. The people in the public sector who lost their homes also had you really perform very heroically all night long, like Karen did.
“The people in the public sector who lost their homes also had to perform very heroically all night long.” -Jennifer Thompson
So, Brian, we’re going to actually get into your work not as much Karen’s, but I did want to throw that in there. I just really want to welcome you to the podcast, How a Disaster.
Brian Fies: Thank you so much, and I think that’s a lovely point to start on because Karen was a hero to me that night. As you know, we lost our house in the Tubbs Fire, and Karen went straight to work. She was the dependents of the Sonoma County Human Services Department. And before we even knew what had happened to her house, she was setting up shelters in high school gyms, and she was trying to evacuate the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, which is being threatened by fire on three sides. And she was a hero that night, so I really appreciate that nod to her. She deserves that and more.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I want to echo that I too think she was a hero. She would not like that description is my guess. She would be like, I was doing my job, doing the right thing. But I love starting off on that note. So for those people who are not familiar, tell us your fire story from that night. And part of what I am going to want to talk about, why and how it’s so important to have that element of how you turned to your art in a way of not only healing but building a more empathetic response with the people around you.
Brian Fies: Thank you. Yeah, our fire story is like everybody else’s fire story. We were awakened about 1:00 AM when our power went out, and that the little click, click of the clock awakened my wife, Karen. I looked out the window, we saw the smoke, we saw the orange glow coming. We live a few blocks off of Mark West Creek, which was one of the freeways between Calistoga and Santa Rosa that the Tubbs fire followed. We saw it coming. We had about 15 minutes to pack a few things or a few things, and a cat, a dog into one of our two cars and just get out. And this is the start of the story I tell in a fire story, my comic and book. But as we just discussed, we went directly to Karen’s office which was a few miles from our home. She worked all night. I walked the dog all night. And the next morning at dawn, I walked back into our neighborhood to see what had happened. And we could pick up the story there. But in essence, we lost our home along with a few hundred others in our neighborhood, and thousands of others in Sonoma Napa counties.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But you had to walk three miles though. I think there’s something about that point, there’s a poignancy to that to the unveiling of this sort of super, this mega fire, which we really hadn’t seen before. I mean, we’re now four years and two months post disaster, three months post disaster, and we’ve seen this sort of level of destruction again and again. But what people have to understand is, we really hadn’t seen it then, and it really did feel very apocalyptic. So can you walk us through those three miles a little bit?
Brian Fies: It was so eerie, because this was dawn after the fire. The fire was still going in other places, but I didn’t know that. My house was gone, but I didn’t know that. And so I just started walking and I kept expecting you to hit a roadblock or something, but I never did. There were no roadblocks because all the police officers, or firefighters, highway patrol, they were all busy somewhere else trying to deal with this crisis. Taken back, there was one CHP roadblock keeping people from getting on the freeway. So I parked my car near there. I just strolled right to the barricades. Nobody tried to stop me, and I just kept going. I walked through neighborhoods, it looked perfectly fine neighborhoods that look just like I remember them. And I saw smoke plumes off on the horizon. But I thought walking through, I was thinking, well, this doesn’t look so bad. But the smoke was, I don’t have to remind anybody who was there or anywhere within the area what the smoke was like. But this guy was just this strange, nuclear apocalyptic orange. The smoke was thick. There was ash floating in the sky like snow.
“I was walking along and I realized I was inhaling my neighbor’s lives. Whatever their lives were made out of was in that smoke, in that dust, the ash that was in the air.” –Brian Fies
And one of the lines I use in the book that people really connect with is I was walking along and I realized I was inhaling my neighbor’s lives. Whatever their lives were made out of was in that smoke, was in that dust, the ash that was in the air, and I was breathing in my neighbor’s lives. So I was just walking along looking at houses that all looked fine. Again, plume here and a plume there. Came around a gentle curve and saw that my entire neighborhood was just flattened. It looked like the aftermath of an atomic bomb as far as I could see for a mile ahead of me. It was flat and gray with some toothpick trees. And it was strange because you talk about, sort of my mindset is, I wasn’t shocked, but I knew I was in shock. I’ve always had this sort of pair of eyeballs floating over my shoulder, watch me, watch things. And this pair of eyeballs is saying to me, yes, you can see you’re in shock, but pay attention because you’re going to be writing about this later.
So I’m walking into my neighborhood, I’m taking pictures of things because I know I’m going to have to draw these things. I know I’m going to tell my story as a comic. And we can talk about how, why the heck would you tell the story in the form of a comic strip? It’s because I had experienced telling stories in the form of a comic strip before, but it was very strange. Because even as though I could see everything, for as far as I could see was going, I still sort of in the back of my head had some illusion, some hope, some vain hope that if I turn the corner of my street, my house would be sitting there at the end and it’s just fine. Until I was standing right in front of my house, there was a part of me that just couldn’t believe that it was all gone. And we went from there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What I think that sort of, it’s almost like a coping mechanism to have that magical thinking, though, which is so much of what we encounter still in communities that can be right in the middle of a forest, but then be leveled. And it’s always that, yes, I know this happens, but I just didn’t think it would quite happen to me or I kind of hoped. It’s not that anybody thinks that they’re special or exempt. It’s just the disbelief when it actually does. And until you’ve seen a magnifier, you don’t really see that it’s not everything, like it skipped the gas station across the freeway. But somehow, it got your entire neighborhood. And so I can say, yeah, and it was just unbelievable.
Brian Fies: Word skipped a mile and hit coffee park. Yeah, and I love very much like your comments, forget at the start that this was the first of a thing that has now become a routine thing, which is just horrific. But I read an article the other day about the fires in Colorado and the phenomenon of the urban wildfire. We don’t live back in the hills. We’re not surrounded by trees. We’re in a subdivision surrounded by other houses. I just didn’t think it was possible. And in fact, we call our girls when we have to be evacuated and we tell them, well, we’re evacuating. But I told them, I don’t see how it’s possible for fire to get into our neighborhood. I just couldn’t conceive that this fire blown by 70, 80 mile an hour winds could just mow down everything in its path, including an entire neighborhood, and what had to have been a couple of hours. Because by the time I got there after dawn, we left it. We left at 1:30. I came back in at like 7:00 AM. In that five and a half, six hours, everything was not just gone. It was barely burning anymore. There’s barely any smoke. It was like a cold fireplace. Amazing. I had no idea fire could do that.
“None of us are exempt no matter where we live from the dangers of losing our home in an ember cast.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I think that we didn’t understand that fire is large, we think of it as an orderly like in our fireplace or don’t like to leave something on in the kitchen. I think that’s how we’ve always been thinking about it until the era, we call it the era of mega fires. And it’s largely a game of embers. It’s the Ember cast. And the Ember cast can be the size of an ember or it can be the size of a car, and it can be in its base there like emissaries that get sent five miles ahead. And even in the case of our fires here, after they took out simultaneously, even Fountain Grove, Larkfield, your neighborhood over there, it took the overpass, they don’t create its own weather, and it moves very quickly. And I think that the Colorado fire is a prime example, unfortunately, of how this isn’t such a question of WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, but of how are we going to not only learn to live alongside mild fire in order to prevent mega fires, but also just to understand that none of us are exempt no matter where we live of the dangers of losing our home in an ember cast. That’s sort of technical, I know, but for a lot of people listening to this podcast, it is going to be about like how it’s called How to Disaster so we can help people walk through this journey. But we’re also hoping that people don’t have to walk through this journey, that they can understand and see the huge impact that it can have in a very short period of time. We’re talking three minutes for a house, your whole life. Even though that pains me, but I do love that line about inhaling your neighbor’s lives. Because when I walk into fire communities now, I feel much the same. It’s over, and over, and over again.
Brian Fies: Well, you’re sure right about the ember cast, though. I mean, the one problem is the fire, but the real problem is the wind. In my fire story book, I interviewed people and I told their fire stories in addition to my own. I interviewed a guy in there named Mike Harkins who spent the night in his neighborhood trying to save his neighborhood single handedly with a garden hose running from house to house, putting up embers. And he said that there were times when he’d hear an explosion and he looked up, and he would just see a milky way galaxy of embers going over his head. And he said, it was almost beautiful. It was almost just like, he just had to stand and watch it in beauty and awe until he realized, oh, no, I need to go put those out. And it eventually got to be too much for him. I mean, he single handedly managed to save many houses in his neighborhood except his own. He couldn’t save his own. So it’s a remarkable story. But the embers we’re burning holes in his shirt, and it was just the ember cast is amazing. I don’t want to jump topics too much here, but I think one of the messages we have for reading these things in the future is wisdom about landscaping, land clearing and building codes.
Our original house that burned down was built in 1986, I think. And in the 35 years since then, well, actually 30 years until the fire building codes have changed so much that now we’ve got hardieplank, which isn’t as flammable as the old wood boards, we’ve got roofing materials that are fire resistant, My house has sprinklers in it now. We’ve got all these building codes, we’ve got more wisdom about how to handle these wild lands, how to handle what you put around your house, the bushes. Because a lot of the time, what caught fire were the bushes at the foundation of your house, and then your house is gone because your roses caught fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Who knew that vents were, I didn’t know before 2017. The vents were the entire role of that. I’m curious, I would actually like to go back to that moment when you’re walking through something that is very sort of completely world changing. I actually liked one of the things that you said in one of the interviews, I think it was the PBS interview and you said that everything in your life becomes before the fire and after the fire. And it’s a demarcation that cannot change. But there’s that moment when you’re actually in that transition phase of before the fire and after the fire where it’s almost like an artist’s mind as some people might treat that as trauma. But I love that a lot of artists treat that as an opportunity for this other side of you, this other set of eyeballs. So can you talk about how you have to go to the store and get your basics because they’re all gone, but you also bought art supplies. And yeah, what was that like?
“Everything out there is out of my control. I can’t stop this fire, but I can control how I tell the story of the fire narrative.” –Brian Fies
Brian Fies: Well, I think there’s a couple things going on. I mean, the sort of live obvious answer is it’s therapeutic for the artist. This is how you deal with things, this is how you process it, understand and come to terms with it. And I think some of that’s true. I think in my case also, writing about it, talking about it, telling stories about it, making a comic about it and putting it online and then later in a book is how I gain a measure of control over the situation I have no control over. I’m not a firefighter, I’m not an emergency response, I’m not a first responder, everything out there is out of my control. I can’t stop this fire, but I can control how I tell the story of the fire control, that narrative. In this book, I am the God and King of this world that I create here. And I think that it gives me that illusion of control. I think it provides something constructive I can make out of this very destructive thing. And I’ve encountered that in my work before too, which is something horrible has happened. Well, you can make that positive. Not that you turn the whole thing go positive, it always sucks. But you can wring some small little bit of goodness out of this horrible experience, and I think that’s part of it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: There’s a term for that that I’ve been reading about lately that you might be interested in called tragic optimism. It’s very much how I operate, which is I expect bad things to happen, but then what can come out of that though? So I just wanted to put a note in there that there’s an actual term for that. It actually came out of the holocaust. Anyway, go ahead.
Brian Fies: I find that fascinating. I’ve heard that term before too. I think Rebecca Solnit writes about it sometimes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: She does, yeah. A Paradise Built in Hell is a great book for those of you who are curious about how people actually behave after a disaster, which is pretty beautiful.
Brian Fies: Yeah, it can be. And again, not to jump around too much, but you’re absolutely right. I mean, most of the people we met were nothing but kind of sympathetic and wanted to be helpful. Even if they weren’t always helpful they wanted it to be, it really brought out the best in people. And I think it can bring out the best In the people who experience the disaster too. I mean, I’ve led a fortunate life and that I’ve never really been tested in a deep way. I didn’t serve in the military, I’ve never really sort of faced something.
My mom died, but that’s kind of the course of life. I came through this fire feeling like it tested me and my family, and we came through it, we passed the test. So there’s something good in that, there’s some measure of satisfaction or something in knowing that you could get through something like that because we know people who didn’t, we all know people who didn’t. We know husbands and wives who got divorced. I know many people who I’m absolutely certain their death was hastened by the stress and the horribleness of the fire. They didn’t die in a fire, but they died the months after the fire because it just knocked the stuffing out of them. It just took away their will to live. The cliche is doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But sometimes, it doesn’t kill you. It just really weakens you and kills you later. I don’t like that cliche. I don’t like that cliche at all because it’s damaging, it hurts you, it wounds you and the wounds don’t go away. They kind of scar and scab over. But the one word I hate most is closure.
Once in a while, somebody will say, well, do you feel a closure? No, never. Never, never, never. I’ll punch you in the face if you say closure to me. There’s no closure. You build a new life, but your life is gone. You didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to it, you didn’t have a chance to bring anything with you. And the closure people have kind of put up there with, well, it’s just stuff people. Sometimes they mean well. And yeah, you’re right. Nobody in my family died. I’m grateful that nobody in my family died, and I could have done without 95% of the stuff in my house. But that 5%? I will miss them forever. I still miss her every day. People ask, what did you lose that you really miss? And it’s stuff that has no monetary value. I mean, the one I always think of is, I have twin daughters. And when they were in utero, we had the ultrasound and we had Polaroid pictures, little Polaroid. The very first picture of them in utero of the two fetuses inside my wife. And we kept that posted on the fridge forever, and then we put it in a baby book, and it’s gone. It’s gone. I’ll never get that. I’ll never see a Polaroid again. What’s that worth? It’s worth 30 cents worth of Polaroid film, but it’s a fortune.
“Your life meant something and it was worth grieving over. The life you have now is worth nurturing and pushing forward in the way that it should be. But don’t let anybody take away your grief for the life that you had.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think this is a good actual moment to put a pin in that in particular. Because as you may know, we deal with newly fire affected communities all the time. And working with this woman I have contact with lost her homestead and the Dixie Fire. And she is in that searing rage grief stage, and I am always encouraging her to just keep in it ever longer she needs to be in it. And I see people respond to her online by, oh, you didn’t die. Or they’re trying to minimize her grief. And what I say to her since like two days after her house burned was, your life meant something and it was worth grieving over. The life you have now is worth nurturing and pushing forward in the way that it should be. But don’t let anybody take away your grief for the life that you had.
“There’s no right or wrong reaction. You do what you have to do to get through it. You make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time.” –Brian Fies
Brian Fies: That’s wonderful and beautiful. I think that’s entirely apt. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way to get through this. I mean, I know people who were just flattened by it, and I know people who’ve got to flip through life like a leaf on a creek, and there’s no right or wrong reaction. There’s no right or wrong to decide to stay, and rebuild, or move to the other side of the country. You do what you got to do to get through it. You make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time. Through my book and stuff, I’ve sort of become a contact point and resource for people as well. They say, God, Brian, I just lost my home. What should I do? And they’re kind of like, should I start plowing the land? Yeah, contact theme of fine, maybe the hope, maybe they won’t, they didn’t do much for us. But one day at a time, make a list of what you’re gonna do that day, get through the list, make a new list tomorrow. That’s it. One foot in front of the other, make a list, get through it, allow yourself the time to grieve, be angry and express what you need to express. And again, I kind of channeled this into the comments and the work I was doing. But whatever you need to get through it, whatever gets you through is okay by me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. And I think that a lot of people need to hear that not only people who have just gone through it are still going through it or will go through it, but those around them need to hear that. However people need to process it, you just need to let them have it. You don’t have to control it. And if you have discomfort, or you’re uncomfortable with their grief, then you need to acknowledge that because your need to help them has to take second place to what they need in order to be helped.
“Give people the resources to determine what they need for themselves.” –Brian Fies
Brian Fies: We could talk for an hour about this. Yes, yes. So many people meant so well, I would end up trying to make them feel better. People would bring us, they’d kind of clean out their closet and they bring us a truck full of T shirts, old jeans and stuff. And thank you. That’s lovely. I have nowhere to put them. I don’t need your old clothes. I love you. Thank you. But no, and then you’re kind of measuring how to deal with their feelings of, well, now they’re sad because they tried to help and you just shut the door on them, but I don’t need that. Again, I’ve told other people in other places, you know what people need? Gift cards to places like Target and Walmart, that’s what they need. And then they can go buy their own underwear, and shirts, and socks, and art supplies or whatever. It sounds crass, but give people the resources to determine what they need for themselves instead of thinking, well, now’s the time I’m going to ship 100 teddy bears to Sonoma County. No. Those do anybody any good.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It doesn’t. A woman, Kelly Thompson, who runs ViequesLove off the coast of Puerto Rico, and after Hurricane Maria did not have power for seven months and somebody sent them ice skates. A lot of ice skates.
Brian Fies: Oh, wow.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s just a perfect example of, I mean, thank you for being a good human being. But also, please don’t do that. I’m always trying to preach that. One of the things that I actually, just one side note is when you came out with your, and talked about that to your initial comics with pretty much immediately after the fire. I think a lot of us felt in this weird way like a sense of ownership and pride that you had done that, that you had put it in that median and we were like, okay, someone’s telling the story that no offense to Anderson Cooper on our streets and all of the news, we appreciate their interest. But it felt like the telling of a story in a way that was from one of us, as opposed to somebody just wanting to stand outside of a building. And there’s a second point is, and I really want you to address both of these, you were not afraid to swear. I just have to tell you how much I loved that, that you weren’t trying to like say this was anything other than what it was in order to make people more comfortable. Because swearing sometimes makes people uncomfortable, but it’s a fearless decision, and it’s a literary tool. Can you talk about that?
Brian Fies: I’d love to. First of all, thanks for the first thing you said for your readers, viewers and listeners who don’t know. Right after the fire, do you mind if I do this?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah.
Brian Fies: I went to Target the day after the fire and bought shoes. I bought socks and a shirt because I’d evacuated out those things. I want to tell her story. I knew I was going to tell our story. I felt like a reporter on the frontlines of a war. Like somebody’s reporting on the Spanish American War. I bought a spiral bound book of really terrible drawing paper because this is what Target had for art supplies. And I bought a couple Sharpies and four color highlighters, and I started drawing. I started drawing our story of the day after the fire because I knew I needed to get this out. I need to get out in the world. I need to tell people our story. And what people told me, I put it online. I have a blog and put on the blog and said, go look at this. No promotion. Something like 700,000 people read that comic in the first couple of weeks it was up. It looks like this. I do it in the book. These are pages from the original comp that I put online.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And to those of you listening on the podcast, we will put a link to our YouTube. We’re going to take a quick break and we’re going to come right back. And when we do, that’ll be our marker. Okay, so again, this is the podcast, How to Disaster. I am Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m sitting with author, cartoonist and fire survivor, Brian Fies.
Welcome back to the podcast, How to Disaster. Again, my guest today is Author/Cartoonist and fire survivor, Brian Fies. He lost his home once again in the Tubbs Fire on October 9, 2017. He has a few books out that are graphic novels, but the one we’re discussing most today is called A Fire Story. We will put a link to where to find out more about Brian and the book in the comment section. So right now, what Brian is going to do is sort of take us through some visuals. If you’re listening to this on podcasts, then you may want to refer to the YouTube version because I specifically really wanted Brian to actually show us his materials and what he was doing, and sort of the impact of how he took a visual and then turned it into a graphic novel to tell his story. And we’re actually going to revisit, we’re going to visit about his choices, a literary tool to actually use profanity, which I love.
Brian Fies: Yes, I will definitely get back to that. But I just wanted to say, I’d like to share the screen here in a second. But I’d like to say that, so a lot of people saw my comic in the area across the country around the world. And the overwhelming response I got was, I saw your fire on the news, I saw Anderson Cooper at your fire, but your comic was the only thing I read that made me feel what it was like to be there. That made me understand what it was like to be in your shoes. And that was why I did it. There’s nothing more gratifying. That was the point of it was to explain what it felt like on the ground. Not just what it looked like, but what it felt like, and that’s what the medium of comment excels at. It’s not a video, it’s not a screen photographic, accurate representation of the event, but it’s perfect using metaphor, symbolism and inner dialogue to convey the feeling of being there. If a comics working, you feel what that experience is like. And that’s what I was aiming for. So when people told me that that was great. So may I share the screen?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yes, you may.
Brian Fies: Do you see a devastated fire area?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I sure do.
Brian Fies: That’s my street. This is, as I said, as I was walking in my neighborhood the next morning after the fire at dawn, I was taking pictures because I knew I would be talking about this later. That’s my house, and those are the art supplies that I show you. I went to Target the next day and bought it. That’s what I drew my webcomic with.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that you took a picture of that. I just do. I think it’s important. So I love that detail.
Brian Fies: So this is what the artwork looks like. Not my best artwork, but I was under duress. I was drawing as fast as I could just to get it down and out because I wanted to be immediate. I wanted to be in the news. My first job out of college, I was a newspaper reporter and I really felt that sort of journalism instinct kick in. I knew I was in the middle of an historic event, and I felt the duty to report it. So that’s what I wanted to do. So I took photographs like the one on the left here which shows a street with a fire hose kind of sprawled out on the street still connected to a fire hydrant. And on the right, I’ve got my interpretation of that which is a fire hose split and melted on the street, a valiant last stand routed into retreat. And again, that’s my neighborhood in the distance behind the fire hose. My photo on the left and my drawing on the right of a basketball hoop that had fallen over into the middle of the street in a fire and it partially melted. And the caption here is a fallen hoop that a boy loved balls at for hours every night after dinner. And I’ve since talked to those people and they know exactly, they know that was their hoop. These are my mailboxes.
Again, a photograph I took as I walked in my neighborhood on the left, and my drawing, my interpretation of that on the right. The steel posts have mailboxes bent like hot summer taffy, and these are mailbox banks, like 16 mailboxes in one big box that are just bent over like potsdam taffy. A photo of my front yard on the left and my interpretation in my webcomic on the right of my redwood trees that actually had pieces of my neighbor’s roof stuck in them. I can see a refrigerator there, and in the garage was the car we left behind and nothing else. If you were to look closely, you could see a little spot fires in the background of the photograph. And I also drew a couple of those. There were still fires burning. I suspect those were mostly broken gas lines. But I was an idiot who evacuated my house wearing sandals the night before because it was the closest thing to the bed. I didn’t feel like lingering in a fire zone in sandals.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I have special fire shoes that I wear to all of them because you have to be able to rinse them off.
Brian Fies: Yeah, absolutely. So as I said, I started writing and drawing, and telling our story, and I put it on my blog. And that looked like this. Something like 700,000 people saw that in first couple of weeks. It’s a 16 pages of our fire story that were republished in the local newspaper, The Press Democrat, a little while after maybe a week or two after it was online, radio station KQED, or television station KQED in San Francisco contacted me and said: “Would you mind if we animated that?” And I said: “Knock yourselves out because I’m not going to animate it.” And so they did a little six and a half minute video. They showed it on the newscast. They put it online. Again, it just went viral. It was not something like 3 million people saw that thing. I’m not going to show the video here, but it went on to win an Emmy Award. So I’ve got that going for me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And we will link it, just so you know, in the comments because I think it’s definitely important to see, love that.
Brian Fies: What that means most to me is, full thanks to the folks that KQED. It was just another way to get our story, to tell our story to people in a very direct, painful kind of raw way that I thought and hoped folks would understand. Oh, nevermind.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I like that.
Brian Fies: That’s a joke. The joke is, thankfully, I didn’t let that go to my head. That’s a joke. For the people listening, it’s a picture of me in bed with my Emmy. I forgot that it was here. So as a result of that, I’m going to stop sharing now. I’ve published other graphic novels before and my graphic novel publisher, my editor emailed me one day and said: “Listen, Brian, no pressure, no problem. But if you ever want to turn that into a book, we’d love to publish it.” And one thing I’ve learned about publishing is when the publisher says, we want to publish your stuff, you say yes. And frankly, that was in my mind from the start. So A Fire Story, the book is a much longer story that doesn’t just cover the first couple of days, it covers a longer stretch of time, more space. I interviewed five or six other people and got their fire stories because I realized my point of view was limited. My perspective was limited to what I experienced directly in my socio economic background so I want to talk to people, the places richer and poorer than me, a couple people who didn’t lose their houses but still had interesting stories to tell, I thought so. That’s how the book came about. Now the swearing. Can I use the word here on the podcast?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You can. Yeah, I don’t know what the rules have been. I don’t really care. Coz you know what? Our rule is to be authentic and have integrity.
Brian Fies: Right. Here’s the original. The [inaudible] as I read it, I knew, fuck, fuck, fuck. Here’s my story about that, and I love this story. Our neighbor across the street has also lost their house, and has grandchildren. They went to live with their children or grandchildren after the fire. And the only way that they can help their grandchildren process what had happened to grandma and grandpa was to read them my story, and read them a fire story every night at bedtime. And so they’d read the story. The kids are like five and seven years old, and they get to that part of the story. And grandma would always say, now, this isn’t a word we use. But sometimes, it’s the exact perfect word. And grandma would say fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. And the kids go [laughing]. And it was wonderful. I love that. I think that’s the rationale. It’s not a word play people use all the time. But sometimes, there’s just no other word. And when it came time to publish it as a book, my editor and I had a long talk about that, because that’s a word that’s going to keep it out of elementary schools. And there’s no other reason school kids shouldn’t read this book, except it’s a serious subject about serious things. But we couldn’t think of any way around it. What are you going to do? Are you gonna write fudge? Are you going to write, what? What are you going to do? And as a reporter, as a journalist, I felt it was important to report what I said and thought, and that’s exactly what I was thinking and saying as I walked into my neighborhood. That was it. I was walking down the street fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, because that’s all what flooded my brain.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What is just startling, for people who haven’t seen a magnifier up close, they’re actually the number of what I want to say, the template of colors is very limited. It’s very very resti, and black, oranges and beiges. It’s just a very particular experience to see, especially the first time. It’s so startling that you go from this sort of technicolor life to a very different template of what you’re seeing in front of you.
Brian Fies: I’m reminded of Buzz Aldrin’s description of the moon when he first stepped onto the moon. He called it magnificent desolation. And I think that kind of fits. It looks like a moonscape. To that point, our house, we rebuilt in the same spot weighing all the alternatives. We’ll see if it ended up being a smart decision. We rebuilt where our house burned down. And our house was one of the first ones built in our neighborhood and we painted it a kind of a nice blue color. That’s a nice blue color. But compared to the gray and brown and everything around it, it looked like a Looney Tunes house, it looked like Bugs Bunny should live in it was bright and Gary almost blistered your eyes. And now that it’s surrounded by other houses, it looks perfectly normal, but against this landscape of blue, nothing. It just stood out like a lighthouse beacon. It was amazing.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And you guys are towards sort of the back of the neighborhood, aren’t you? If my memory serves correct? And in your neighborhood was just for people who maybe have just gone through this. You’re just to understand again that they are, you were not necessarily in the WUI, not as far out as Coffee Park. But it was not an area where you would necessarily expect for wildfire to move that quickly, and your neighborhood is pretty much rebuilt with few exceptions. Is that correct?
Brian Fies: That’s true. Yeah. To your first point, absolutely right. We’re in the flatlands. We’re not in the hills. Now, the hills, I can see the hills, but it’s not an area before 2017 I would have fought could have burned. And in fact, the fire skipped over a very large empty field that surrounded an elementary school to our east. They just went right over the elementary school and just pounded us. So no, we’re not in the interface, but we burned just as good. I mean, is it not quite as astonishing as what happened to Coffee Park. I couldn’t believe what happened to Coffee Park because, again, to viewers or listeners who might not be familiar, Coffee Park is a long, long way across a six lane freeway. It’s a mile beyond that. It’s just astonishing to me that that neighborhood, 1500, 2000 homes burned down that night. Mine, I kind of get because I’m not that far from the hills, and I live three blocks from a creek. I kind of get that. But what happened, what this fire did will amaze me to my dying day.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, it never gets old for me. And even in looking at the fire in Colorado as I was watching a flyover and the houses were very much in the same span across as much like your neighborhood and Markwest, but also they have basements.
Brian Fies: Oh, yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So they imagine they’re debris removal is an entirely new puzzle. And so there’s always a new puzzle. I want to take you back, though, to the role of the artist in a disaster. You are both artists, and you have a journalist mind. And so I can see how those two things came together. Can you talk about what the role is in creating art, or amplifying art after a great disaster because so much of what happens. I was on a call this morning where they were asked, we’re gonna do case studies. And they were like, so what’s one of the benefits of that? And I said, well, the first one is you have to bring people hope, you have to let them know that they have a community and network of people who maybe have been through which we did not have in 2017 at all. The closest we had was Lake County to give us some advice. They also had the same wildfire event. So can you talk about the role of the artist, or how other people have approached you as an artist? Or for a newly fire effective community, how to nurture that and support it?
“Art doesn’t seem very important in an event like this. And yet sometimes, it’s the thing that lasts the longest and means the most.” –Brian Fies
Brian Fies: This is just my opinion. I think there’s an interesting paradox because art doesn’t seem very important. Or you wouldn’t think art seems very important in an event like this. And yet sometimes, I think it’s the thing that lasts the longest and means the most, it’s sort of how not just one person but a community processes a trauma like this. Shortly after the Tubbs Fire, I was fortunate enough to have galleries asked to exhibit my work, the Sonoma County Museum, Museums in Napa and Sonoma and so forth, Petaluma. And they put on art exhibitions of not just mine, but 5, or 6, or 10, or 12 other people. And I found that fascinating because I don’t think any one person, including me, captures what a disaster is about. How it affects people and what it means. But when you see the interpretations of 5, or 6, or 12, or 15 people, those pieces of mosaic that draw a complete picture, I think. It was almost eerie, almost beautiful. This person is working in an entirely different medium and came to entirely different conclusions. But they obviously went through the same thing I did. And so did that person who’s turning ashes into ceramic pots? And so did this person who’s showing movies on melted glass? Or this person who’s weaving things out of wool from sheep, or were lost in the fire, or what have you? I mean, people did amazing things. I have to think art is important. I have to think also journalism is important. Journalism, it’s how we tell our stories. It’s how we remember things, how we process them.
“Journalism is how we tell our stories. It’s how we remember things; how we process them.” –Brian Fies
I’ve been to Pompeii, what do you see when you go to Pompeii? You see the mosaics on the floor, you see the paintings on the wall, and you see the remains of the people who were there. And that’s the story of Pompeii that’s told through the art that remains, the art in the architecture. Not to compare our situation to Pompeii, but I think 50 or 100 years from now, what people will look back on and remember is the art that came out of it. And the journalism and the storytelling. I’ve sort of recently come to this idea that we live our lives through stories. Our own life is a story that we tell ourselves that we’re the hero. Everybody’s the hero of their own story, and we relate to each other through stories. And we tell stories about politics, we tell stories about the environment, we tell stories about citizenship, or whatever we tell stories about, or relationships. Storytelling, I think, is something deeply intrinsic and important to being a human being. You can just imagine people gathered around a campfire. This is how we learn things. This is how we learn to trust each other, or learn to hate other people, or whatever the story is. I think it’s really, really important. And at least this is what I tell myself when I want to be a storytelling artist.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I actually totally agree with you. My undergrad is history and English literature, because I didn’t want to learn one without the perspective of the other. And I have felt that that has served me incredibly well. So much makes sense of what’s happening now, but to find a sense of tragic optimism as we move through this very strange time, physically it’s difficult, and we’ve actually had a total for mega fires including 2017, which is really 11 fires. That was 11 fires in one night, but we’ve had some pretty terrifying experiences. Take us to where you are now. We are four years and two months post disaster. You rebuild your home and move back in. Karen has retired. And to be clear, like nobody would have, we had a lot of retirements, people who lost their home, but Karen stuck it out for I think another 18 months or something to do a very difficult job.
Brian Fies: Yeah, a couple of years. She really wanted to get another fire season, and she didn’t make it for one of them. But she was due, she was due. And we did rebuild our house. We got in relatively quickly. About a year and a half after the fire, our house was rebuilt. We were one of the first ones back in our neighborhood. It’s such a strange thing. For a while, you feel like you’re living in a stranger’s house, an Airbnb or something even if it’s kind of yours, or you designed it. Still to this day, for years after the fire, Karen and I will be talking, thinking and saying, do we have that? Do we have it before the fire? Did we buy it after the fire? Do we even have it at all? My neighbor, like a week ago said, hey, Brian, you got a staple gun. I had to think for the longest time because I know I used to have a staple gun. Turns out that I don’t have a staple gun anymore. But I had to go look, I didn’t know.
There’s not a day goes by that we’re not reminded three or four times, I am still in my house, turn left instead of right to go to the bathroom, or reach for lights, which are not there anymore. Or we used to have a big clock up in our hallway, as I left the house, I’d always look up and see what time it was. I still look up, there’s nothing there. I’m looking up to the ghost of a clock that used to be. So this gets back to the closure. There’s no closure, you just kind of start your new life and you live it, and you hope for the best. There are good days, there are a lot of good days, everything we’re fine. We survived it, and we’re in a beautiful house. But as we started before the fire, after the fire, and the only thing I could compare it to is the birth of my children, which was I had a life before then, and I had a life after that. And it’s that kind of just demarcation that you can just say, that is the 15 minutes my life changed, and never going back.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Never going back. I think, actually, I’m going to hold you in that moment for a second. Because until I started helping within the Campfire, I started helping about eight days into their fire. And it was really just a human response. We don’t run up and lead their recoveries. We help local leaders as our model actually lead and design their own recoveries because we are not part of that community. But we do have some lessons and some tools, and I never want anyone to feel, again, like we did. I worked inside of the county so I knew firsthand about how really ill equipped we were and how low we were doing the best that we could, but sort of almost self defensive. It was just a very difficult thing to navigate without anybody to help us carry through the–
Brian Fies: We learned a lot the hard way.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, man, did we ever really did? We made mistakes, and we did some things right, and we did some things really wrong. And so we try to carry that very humble lesson to other communities. But I remember sitting with my dear friend, Charles Brooks, and he lost his home in the campfire. He asked me if I would attend Rebuild Paradise Foundation’s first board meetings. I helped him set up an organization similar to the one that I was running, and they were the talk, and I’ve seen this over and over again. And the talk was, okay, so how do we get back? We’re meeting in Chico because Paradise was gone, obviously. Like, okay, we need to get back, how do we do that? We need to get back. And I looked at them and I was like, it just doesn’t work like that. You don’t go back. You don’t. But you can’t reimagine how you would like it to be next and you can figure that out, but there is no back.
“You don’t go back. You don’t. But you can reimagine how you would like it to be next.” -Jennifer Thompson
Brian Fies: Well, there are opportunities for improvement in that too. You can make things better than they were in some respects, but you never get over mourning this stuff that was lost before was less perfect.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. And then that’s okay.
Brian Fies: Yeah, it is. Well, it has to be okay. Because what’s the alternative?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think some people fight it though. Like, they fight a wave, and I don’t judge them for that because loss and grief, and those are all in trauma, those are all very difficult things, very human things to navigate. And so I understand sort of wishing like that thing, when you wake up in the morning and something terrible has happened and you think, I just wish I could go back two days ago before that terrible thing happened. And then you realize that whatever you were, or however you were before was gone. But now, you have to reimagine your new life. It’s going to be bumpy, and uncomfortable, and inspiring, because like in your case, this terrible thing happened, but this thing of beauty was created from it. And this whole other, really positive thing, which was, you told your fire story, and that’s a really important thing to share.
Brian Fies: Yes. Once in a while, I’ll get a little wish from someone like, gee, good thing for you, your house burned down, what a wonderful opportunity that’s been for you. I mean, that with. No, it’s just like, no, no, no, if I couldn’t do what I would, and I’d give up the book and the stuff that came with the book, please. I mean, I don’t know if you do this, but I still sometimes go bowling at night with lights out and will be lying in my bed and I’ll just kind of imagine my old bedroom. I can kind of walk through my old bedroom, one line in the dark and my new bedroom kind of thing. But you asked where I’m at now, a big evolution in my thinking has come with the realization that although our fire felt like the first something, first of all, it really wasn’t. There were other big mega fires before, but I’ve really come to see A Fire Story as a story about climate change. In a way I didn’t then, I was very reluctant to mention it in the original hardcover book that came out because big fires happen.
Who knows, we had a big fire in 64, the Hanly Fire, it happens. But our fire at the time was the most destructive wildfire in California history. Not the biggest, physically, but most destructive. The next year after that was even more destructive. And then after that was when they even more, that is not a record that should be broken every year. It just isn’t. And Colorado, and Oregon, and British Columbia. And sometimes, it seems like the whole western half of North America is just a tinderbox waiting to go. I’ve recognized the pattern. Just the last four years of this, it’s a book about what living in a climate change world is like. Unfortunately and sadly have never become irrelevant. I mean, I gave a talk in Colorado a few weeks ago or a couple months ago, and that was just before the recent Colorado fires, because they had big fires in Colorado. I’ve been to Seattle, I’ve been to Portland and they said, oh, yeah, we’ve got those here too, in Los Angeles. Everywhere I go, somebody has been through something like this.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But even more so in the past four years because we’ve worked in every fire from the Wolsey fire to Santa Cruz, to Southern Oregon Alameda Fire, now we’re in Central Oregon. And now, we’re being pulled into Boulder County in Colorado. I never imagined that our model of care would be needed on a regular basis by so many communities. And in 2020, I just gave into it. We were like, okay, we’re in it, we’re gonna stay permanent. And this is an era of mega fires. And it’s really unfortunate, but I’m probably going to be recommending your book for the next. We see it is what the nature conservancy calls the determinant decade. And in that case, it’s like how we approach climate change and wildland management because they go together, and so it’s going to be relevant. Brian, I felt really honored that you would come to our podcast because since the fires, I obviously knew Karen before you, and then I really do mean it that when this trauma happened, I did not lose my home. So when I walk through my own head at night, sometimes it’s about the life I had before the fire because this is all I’ve done full time since October 8, including in Sonoma Valley when the county didn’t have anybody but two employees out there. I was one of them for 10 days and our fires continued and got worse, and it’s a different experience. I can turn around and look, but now my relationship to my house is totally different. I’ll paint a wall and I’ll be like, it’s probably gonna burn down. Don’t get too attached to that
Brian Fies: It actually changed our relationship to stuff. First of all, we don’t have anything older than four years so we’re not that attached to any of it. And everything we buy, it’s just, do we need this? Do we want this? I don’t need that. I used to collect things, I don’t collect things anymore because it’ll probably burn. What’s the point? I mean, no, it’s just the value of that kind of thing, the value of just having stuff to have stuff totally eludes me now, I don’t want it, I don’t get it, I don’t need it. Our lives are different now.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Just before the fire and after the fire. I really have been, without being too goofy, like a fan of your work, I do believe that people need to invite in and support artists. And in your case, you were poised to do this. And you took the time to tell the story of other people to who maybe would not have had that opportunity, and I appreciate that. And I hope that one of the things that people take from this podcast is how enduring and important the messages, and the role of artists and journalists in how we recover and how we reimagine our lives to be to thank you.
Brian Fies: I appreciate that. Thank you very much. That’s very, very kind. Yes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And so again, we are going to link more about Brian Fies and a couple of other articles, and we’re going to give a final shout out to his amazing wife, Karen, who really is a wonderful leader and a quiet leader, my favorite kind. The kind that is humble and made a huge difference with a lot of jazz hands attached to it, so I would like to give them to her now. I want someone to piggyback on this interview with you, and just really thank you, and I am looking forward to it. Tell us about, your next book is a lighter subject, correct?
Brian Fies: My goodness. Well, yeah, later this year, 2022, my publisher is publishing a book that I actually did a webcomic a few years ago called The Last Mechanical Monster. And it was just a project I did just to remind myself that comics can and should be fun. They can be serious, but I just want to do a fun story. So it’s just a fun story about a very old man and his giant robot. That’s what it’s about. I think it’s delightful. I would because I wrote it and drew it, but other people agreed. So it’s going to be a book next year, and then I’m working on something that may or may not come out a couple years from now. I’m very excited about it, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen to it. So I don’t have a publisher lined up or anything, but I’m working on a new project that I hope comes to fruition.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I hope so too. And I hope we have many more years of interviewing you again, maybe in a year and seeing where you’re at. I think that the story of the long term recovery is often missed. People are all invested in the first few weeks in the first year, and I think it’s just so important to talk to people for two years, three years, four years, five years, seven years. These things take time, and that’s okay for it to take time.
“The spotlight goes away, but the trauma, the suffering, and the dealing with things goes on.” –Brian Fies
Brian Fies: That’s huge. The spotlight goes away, but the trauma, and the suffering, and the dealing with things goes on. I really wonder and worry about kids who were 5, 6, 7, 8 years old during the fire and now they’re 9, 10, 11, 12 years old during the pandemic. What kind of a don’t you turn out to be on what you’ve been through this, what we’ve been through here. I think there’s going to be all these events just going to echo through the years for decades.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It could be a reckoning, or it could be the most impressive generation we have seen in a very long time. And I believe that we might have a bit of both. And that again comes from that idea of tragic optimism, because I don’t know how else to be so.
Brian Fies: Yep, I agree.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So once again, thank you again to Brian Fies. He’s an author, a journalist and a fire survivor. His book is A Fire Story. He has some other books as well, but that’s what we’re focusing on today. And we look forward to your new book coming out in late 2022, and thank you for being on the podcast, How to Disaster.
Brian Fies: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here, and it’s great to see you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Great to see you too.