The Fire…This Time: An Interview with Brian Fies

Photograph Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture – Public Domain

Brian Fies is a cartoonist from Santa Rosa, California. On October 9, 2017 wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. In addition, 6,200 homes and 8,900 structures were destroyed. He wrote an 18-page webcomic to describe and deal with the fire and the losses it brought to his family and community. Fies later expanded on the webcomic and ink-penned an account of the catastrophe – A Fire Story.

Fies won an Eisner Award, a prize given to achievement in American comic books, in 2005 for the highly acclaimed Mom’s Cancer. He wrote a follow-up to this book in 2012, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? In addition, he is the author of The Last Mechanical Monster, which was also nominated for an Eisner Award in 2014.

Lives in northern California. He and his wife Karen have two grown daughters. Fies graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a physics major and English minor.
In addition to making comics, has worked as a newspaper reporter, environmental chemist,
freelance writer, and science writer.

The following is an interview completed on July 19, 2021

John Hawkins: In October of 2017 huge swathes of Northern California were wiped out by fire. You describe these events in your graphic memoir, A Fire Story, just released in paperback. Can you conjure up a brief What Happened account of the Tubbs fire?

Brian Fies: The Tubbs fire that destroyed my home was just one of a half dozen firestorms that broke out in northern California that hot, very windy night. The real problem was the wind, which blew at hurricane speeds from the east and north, dry from passing over the Nevada deserts, and pushed the fires sideways like a blowtorch. The fires tore through grass and trees that were already weakened and dried by years of drought, although paradoxically we’d had heavy rains just the winter before, which produced thick carpets of dry wild grasses that were the perfect fuel nine months later.

It’s a pattern of historic drought plus unusually strong winds plus a single small spark, either from nature or humans, that we’ve seen repeated all over the western half of North America and in Australia as well.

Hawkins: A Fire Story reminds me of another graphic account of processes at work — Ted Rall’s comic account of how vote counts in America are manipulated by politicians, away from the prying eyes of the media, which was included in investigative journalist Greg Palast’s nearly prescient How Trump Stole the 2020 Election. What are the advantages of relating your story graphically over, say, a podcast?

Well, different media have their strengths and weaknesses. Comics are my medium—I’d had two graphic novels published before A Fire Story.

I think comics combine words and pictures in a way that makes them greater than the sum of their parts. I often compare comics to popular music: the lyrics of a pop song may be bad poetry, and the music may be three repetitive chords, but put the lyrics and music together and suddenly you’ve got a song that can remind you of the summer you were 16 or define a generation. Comics are like that. In a good comic, the words and pictures communicate two different things and readers have to connect them, which draws them into the storytelling process. When a comic really works right, it can feel like a direct tap from the creator’s brain into the reader’s, which makes them a great way to tell intimate personal stories.

Hawkins: Your account details what happened to your specific community. It was kind of like Nature’s deconstruction of what comprises a community. What did the fire teach you about “community”? What is it?

Fies: Big question! Speaking only for myself, I think I tended to see myself as a kind of lone wolf who plugged into the community when necessary but didn’t really need it. You can have an illusion of self-sufficiency, which evaporates quickly when you lose everything and suddenly need help, and need to surrender some pride to accept that help.

One thing that struck me in the days and weeks after our fire was the kindness and generosity of people. Not just individual people, also businesses and government officials. I give some examples in the book: a restaurant owner who gave us a free lunch; a veterinarian who gave us a case of the prescription dog food we needed, when all we had asked was if we could buy a couple of cans.

You experience that enough, and you step back and see how these threads knit together, some big and some small, and realize they make up a community of people. You’re part of it whether you realize it or not, whether you really want to be or not. A thousand invisible threads, long and short, weak and strong, that tie us all together.

Another thing that struck me was the almost universal response of fire victims when offered help: “Give it to someone else who needs it more.” These are people who had literally no possessions, may have not had shoes or a jacket, but they wanted help to go to people who had it even worse. It was remarkable.

Hawkins: Almost four years later, what stands out most about the 2017 fire and its aftermath?

Fies: I have friends who I think try to watch what they say around me because they don’t want to “trigger” bad memories or reactions. I just joked to one of them that I’m like Bruce Banner when he turns into the Hulk in the “Avengers” movie: my secret is that I’m always triggered. We rebuilt our home in the same spot as the old one, so triggers include walking in the door, walking out the door, walking my dog down the block, looking out a window, reaching for a light switch that isn’t there, trying to find something that I used to have but don’t anymore. We’re glad we rebuilt, but I wonder if people who simply moved somewhere completely different heal a little better. I suspect not.

So that’s one thing that stands out: the fact that you don’t really heal, you never really put it behind you, you just get on with a new life as best you can. And it’s a good new life! We’re lucky! We have a great new house, our family is healthy, our neighbors are home. But I think communities that have been through disasters like ours take decades to recover, not months or years. I often think of kids whose childhoods are defined by the event, whose big memory of being five years old will be the night their house burned down and they ran for their lives. What’s that do to you when you’re 20, 40 or 60?

Big picture, in the first edition of A Fire Story, I didn’t really address climate change. It was easy to see our firestorm as a freak once-a-century event that I just had the bad luck to get caught in. But in just the short time since, there have been once-a-century firestorms every single year, and all over the place. I’ve come to regard my book as a story about living in a climate-changing world. The Tubbs fire wasn’t a one-off, it was an early example of the kind of thing that’s going to happen more often all over the world.

Hawkins: Near the end of A Fire Story, you talk about having lived “in a bubble”. You explain:

During the fire, we lived in a bubble, we saw very little television, heard nothing from the world outside, friends and relatives across the country knew more about what was happening than we did. Weeks later, we still lived in a bubble, a tiny bubble of our family, our property, our losses, our problems. Then we’d take a drive. Mile after mile, hour after hour, ruin after ruin, thousands of other people’s bubbles as real and urgent as ours.

Can you elaborate on this bubble effect? How helpful or unhelpful are such bubbles and what do we learn when they get busted?

Fies: The bubble effect is an interesting thing I’ve noticed at other times. I went through the big Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and found that friends living on the other side of the country knew a lot more about what was going on than I did. Same with the fire. You focus on your immediate needs without any larger context. You’re too busy to think about it.

Then, in a few hours or days or weeks, when your immediate needs are met and you don’t have to spend every minute solving critical problems, you can lift your gaze and realize, “Oh, it’s not just me.”

I don’t know if it’s helpful or unhelpful so much as simply necessary. The bubble probably provides some insulation—if you had to grasp the full enormity of a disaster it could be overwhelming and paralyzing, but if your focus is “Today I need to buy shoes,” that’s a problem you can tackle and solve.

I also don’t know if the bubble bursts so much as it gradually expands. At first, it only includes you and your family. Then “bloop,” it includes your neighbors and friends, then your city, then maybe your region or state. Once you don’t have to worry about yourself you can worry about others. Like they say in the airplane safety lecture, you have to secure your own oxygen mask before you can help others secure theirs.

Hawkins: I liked your Black Hole metaphor regarding what happens to people after a catastrophic fire. Care to explain?

Fies: I’ve always loved space, I majored in physics and taught astronomy labs in college, so the “black hole” metaphor came easily to me. The idea is that the firestorm was our community’s black hole. As with a real black hole, some bodies orbit around this powerful gravitational force, other bodies are pulled in and destroyed, and still others are flung far away beyond the black hole’s pull.

In our disaster, my wife and I were bodies that orbited, uneasily circling this terrifying thing that nearly destroyed us. Other people were destroyed, including those who died that night or later. Some committed suicide. I knew elderly people whose lives I’m certain were shortened by the fire; they just lost heart. Others left the area for other cities, states or countries where they thought they could find safety and peace, never to be heard from again.

I don’t think there’s any wrong or right response, by the way, except I obviously wish people who’d killed themselves had found another way. People stayed, people rebuilt, people moved, people left forever. Some rebuilt and then decided they didn’t feel safe and needed to move after all. They’re all valid reactions.

Hawkins: How has the pandemic influenced bubble thinking?

Fies: I don’t have a good answer to that question except that the last few years have just been one damn thing after another. When the pandemic began, I often joked, “Hey, this isn’t even the scariest thing that’s happened to me in the past two years!” But then people I knew started falling ill and dying, and that joke wasn’t funny anymore.

I do think getting through a disaster can foster some bravado for the next one, like “Fine, bring it on!” Not always productive. But knowing how you reacted in one extreme situation, and having a chance to reflect on how you wish you’d reacted in that situation, is good preparation and practice for the next one. I don’t have to wonder how I’d react in a disaster anymore. Now I know. And I know what I’d do different in the next one.

Hawkins: A Fire Story does an excellent job of describing what people lose in the fire — material and systems and relationships. Can you elaborate on this? And how has the fire altered your understanding of life? The bigger picture…

Fies: Well-meaning people say, “You and your family survived, everything you lost was just stuff.” People who mean less well sometimes say, “I wish I’d have a fire to clean out all my stuff!” I want to punch them all in the nose. I write about this in the book: “stuff” isn’t just material possessions, it’s memories and history and roots.

The fact is, I don’t miss 95 percent of the stuff I lost. The catch is that the other 5 percent breaks my heart. We left a car in the garage that melted into a puddle that I haven’t spent even a minute thinking about, but I will always miss the first sonogram showing that my wife was going to have twins.

I used to be a bit of a collector. I had a lot of comic books, and antique astronomy books, and shelves of knick-knacks and little things that caught my eye. I’m not a collector anymore. I realize I’m still grieving a bit but I just don’t see the point. It seems like pointless vanity to me now. A defense mechanism, I’m sure—if I don’t collect things I love, then I can’t lose them.

My wife and I live lighter now. The house is always neat because we have nothing to clutter it with. I don’t believe that will change. I think I understand more clearly than before what matters and what doesn’t, the difference between the 95 percent and the 5 percent.

Hawkins: Fires seem to be erupting everywhere these days. The Pacific Northwest is not alone. Fires in east Australia have made global news. Recently, I read: “Wildfires are ravaging parts of the Arctic, with areas of Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada engulfed in flames and smoke.” With one figure published, stating that in 2020 more than 50 megatons of CO2 were emitted. Another report showed that 2020 “was possibly the worst-ever year for forest fires around the world… over 400,000 hectares (ha) of Europe’s natural land was burnt….” And yesterday, I read in the Guardian that the Amazon is now emitting more CO2 than it’s absorbing — a seemingly Apocalyptic scenario. What do you make of all this?

Fies: I was just talking to a friend in the comics business about Superman, and I told him, “I used to think the least plausible part of Superman’s origin was that the government of Krypton would ignore clear scientific evidence of their imminent destruction. Now I get it.” California, Canada, Russia, Germany, Australia. As I wrote in A Fire Story, you can’t point to any one disaster and blame it on climate change, but the pattern and trend is exactly what you’d see as the climate changes. It’s just physics. Extra thermal energy in the ocean and atmosphere is transformed into kinetic energy. Stronger winds. Dryer droughts. Wetter floods. More extreme events.

I’m not a climate scientist or economist, I see mixed opinions on whether individual effort makes a difference. I think we have to act as if it does. My wife and I put enough solar photovoltaics on our roof to power our house. We recently bought an electric vehicle. We know these are options a lot of people can’t afford, but we could and so we did them.

In a previous career I was a science writer and editor focusing on the renewable energy industry, and I know that society as a whole is very, very close to the point where solar power, wind power, and clean energy storage aren’t just good ethical choices, but clear economic choices. They’re already competitive in many markets without subsidies. Honestly, I think the only way we get out of this is figuring out how to make money at it. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Hawkins: Back in the Northwest, what can people do to ameliorate the effects of future fires?

Fies: Hell if I know!

Since 2017, my county has done a lot to prepare for future fires. They’ve installed a network of 50 infra-red cameras on peaks so that any fire that breaks out is spotted and triangulated in moments, and firefighting resources are concentrated on it fast. California building codes have changed a lot in just the past couple of decades, to require fire-resistant building sidings, new eave designs, fire sprinklers, and other measures to prevent fires from getting an easy hold inside buildings.

I’m not a forester, but I’ve had foresters tell me that their industry is looking to more aggressive forest management practices and embracing smaller controlled burns to prevent decades of fuel build-up. That makes sense, but I also think politicians back east have no idea how enormous these forests in the West and Northwest really are. The Northwest has forests the size of some states.

Hawkins: In her recent book, Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard, a professor in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, provides compelling evidence that many of the fires devastating California, and the Northwest corridor, are the results of poor decision-making by humans — she cites clear cutting forests and the removal of Mother Trees, which she says, “are really good at bringing water up from the ground and redistributing and making the forest moist.” What conclusions have you drawn (as it were) about causal factors?

Fies: I touched on this a bit in my previous response, and would only emphasize that I’m not a fire or forestry professional so I’m reluctant to say. At the root of the problem, I’m convinced what we’re seeing are early impacts of climate change, transitioning from plausible deniability—“Oh, we’ve always had floods and fires before, this isn’t anything new”—to increasing certainty—“Oh yeah, this is new and different, and fits the scientific models exactly.”

Poor decision-making by humans on the ground certainly exacerbates the problem. We probably also ought to have an overdue debate about where people should be allowed to build houses. Maybe some places are just too dangerous.

I draw some lessons from a local fire in 1964 called the Henley fire that burned almost exactly the same footprint as the Tubbs fire did in 2017. Two differences between them: the Henley fire took four days to burn as much land as the Tubbs fire did in four hours. That’s climate change. And in 2017, there were thousands of people living on land that in 1964 had been cow pasture and orchards, including me. That’s land-use planning. Now, nearly four years after our fire, I see people building or rebuilding miles back in the hills, with a single narrow winding road as their only escape route. I completely respect property rights, and understand that to those folks that is their home, but I don’t think it’s smart public policy to allow that. They will burn again.

Brian Fies explains the art that went into A Fire Story in this 2019 PBS explanation on YouTube. An animated version of the story was also aired on PBS station KQED. His book is highly recommended, and more relevant than ever, and can be purchased at Amazon.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.