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Santa Rosa cartoonist updates his ‘Fire Story’ graphic memoir

Santa Rosa writer and cartoonist Brian Fies never expected to become a first-person chronicler of wildfires, but when the Tubbs fire destroyed his home in 2017, he found storytelling was a way to deal with his shock and sorrow.

His graphic memoir, “A Fire Story,” originally 18 pages long, first appeared in 2017 online and later was published in The Press Democrat. In the spring of 2019, a full-color, 160-page version was published by Abrams ComicsArts.

That was not the end of the story. On Tuesday, the same publisher will release a new 192-page paperback edition of “A Fire Story,” priced at $18.99 and including 32 new pages detailing what has happened since. It will be available at local stores and on Amazon.com.

“I really owe this updated and expanded graphic novel to The Press Democrat. On the two-year anniversary (in 2019) of the firestorm, the paper asked if I had any news on my family and our circumstances,” said Fies, 60, a former newspaper reporter.

“I wrote and drew four new pages of comics that the PD printed, and which got me thinking that maybe I had more to say about the disaster after all. Those four pages will be in the paperback, as well as more about rebuilding, insurance, post-traumatic stress syndrome, loss and recovery.”

But that was the start of an ambitious expansion of the original book.

“When my editor floated the idea of reissuing ‘A Fire Story’ in paperback, I asked if I could add 16 pages of new stuff,” Fies continued. “Then the Kincade fire happened and we had to evacuate again. I called my editor. I said, ‘I’m going to need 32 pages, but now I know how the story’s going to end.’”

Much of the new material in the book covers the struggle to rebuild the Fieses’ home, which included dealing with insurers and contractors.

The Kincade fire struck in October 2019, six months after Fies and his wife, Karen, had finally moved into their rebuilt home. Once again, they were evacuated, and once again they moved in with their daughters in Novato.

But this time, they had a full day to pack rather than the 10 minutes’ notice they got during the Tubbs fire.

“The danger was real, but at the same time, this was our second rodeo. I’d say we were calmly terrified,” Fies said. “We picked up our lives for a second time, but with much less to pack because we already had lost so much.”

Ultimately, firefighters stopped the Kincade fire before it reached Santa Rosa.

After the publication of the original hardback edition of “A Fire Story,” Fies became a popular personality on the author/speaker circuit, touring to speak at bookstores and to students on campuses.

“The pandemic stopped all personal appearances,” Fies said. “I miss talking to people and listening to their experiences.”

In one sequence in the new edition of his book, a woman at a book signing, who also had lost her home to fire, tells Fies, “I was the keeper of my family’s history. I had everyone’s antiques from the old country. Some of them were more than 400 years old ... and I let them burn.”

Of course, Fies reassured her that the loss was not her fault, but he could understand her feelings of guilt.

“As I said in the book, ‘In the chain of posterity, we were the link that broke,’” Fies added.

The author still longs to interact again with readers and the public in general.

“I would love to show the new edition to people and sign it, but that may not be possible for months,” he said.

The best part of his interaction with public was helping people understand the tragic impact of the fires.

“I had a lot of people tell me they saw the fire coverage on the news, but reading my story first made them understand what it was like to be there,” he said. “That’s the power of the comics medium. It invites the readers into the story. It creates empathy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

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