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How Brian Fies used art to process a devastating wildfire


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As the wildfire season gets under way in California, memories of the devastating losses of the last two years are still fresh.

In a new book, a writer tells his experience in a format that might surprise you.

Here again is John Yang with a report that is part of our continuing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.

John Yang: In Santa Rosa in Northern California, it's moving day for award-winning writer and cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife, Karen. They're leaving this rental property to live in a house of their very own for the first time since October 9, 2017.

That was the day their home was devoured by the Tubbs Fire. It destroyed more than 5,600 structures over 37,000 acres and killed 22 people.

At the time, it was the most destructive fire in California history.

Brian Fies: It's a dividing line on our lives. Our lives will always be split into before the fire and after the fire.

John Yang: One of Fies' first chores after the blaze was buying things he needed.

Brian Fies: Shoes, socks, a shirt.

John Yang: And?

Brian Fies: And art supplies.

John Yang: Cheap paper, sharpies and highlighters.

And you started drawing the story of what you had just been through.

Brian Fies: Right.

John Yang: Why?

Brian Fies: I felt compelled to.

I realized that I was an eyewitness to an extraordinary event. I had lived through something historic. And I wanted to tell people about it. Somebody else later said it was my way of bearing witness. And I don't think I could put it any better than that. I had seen this thing. I needed to tell the story.

John Yang: He quickly produced 18 pages and posted them online. In the week after the fire, it had more than 500,000 views.

Brian Fies: On Monday, my house disappeared.

John Yang: PBS station KQED in San Francisco produced an Emmy-winning animated version.

Actress: I smell smoke.

Actor: That's just the Calistoga fire. It's 20 miles from here.

Actress: The sky is glowing.

John Yang: And now it's a 154 page hardcover book, "A Fire Story," published by Abrams ComicsArts. It chronicles the first months of his rise from the ashes.

Brian Fies: Comics excel at metaphor and symbolism. So you don't have to use words to explain the metaphor. You just draw it and you show it to people. There's a two-page spread in the "Fire Story" book about how we felt like the fire had become a black hole in our lives, and we orbited this gravitational well of the black hole.

I don't have to talk about that. The reader instantly gets that. And I don't have to say another word about it.

John Yang: The same simple directness is in Fies' favorite drawing in the book, showing him searching through the ashes of his house.

Brian Fies: We'd really gone through the entire house, had more or less lost hope of finding anything else, but felt like we had to finish the job, because you just never know if just one more shovelful is going to turn up that thing you really treasured.

And I'm standing in the middle of this blankness. The And Caption on this page says, "I am uprooted."

John Yang: "A Fire Story" tells more than just Fies' own tale.

Brian Fies: We're coming up here on the right on the house of my friend Jerry Dunn, whose fire story I told in the book.

John Yang: He recounts the experiences of some of the others who lost their homes and also explains the science of wildfires.

Brian Fies: You can see down into a valley, the valley that the fire came up. Looking around, everything you can see for 360 degrees around, you can do a complete circle. Everything here you can see burned that night.

John Yang: Fies says writing the book helped him deal with his trauma, but may have had an unintended consequence.

Brian Fies: You work on a book like this for a year, or two, or three, and you sort of have to stay in that headspace. You have to keep thinking about the fire, you have to keep it fresh, you have to keep reliving it in order to write and draw about it.

John Yang: Do you think you have held onto it too long?

Brian Fies: Well, and, you know, for example, now I'm doing a book tour, and so now I get to go talk to people every night about my house burning down. And I don't mind that. I'm honored to do that. I understand that's also the job.

But it kind of keeps you thinking about it in a way you might not otherwise.

Andrew Farago: You're right there in the moment with Brian.

John Yang: One of the stops on the book tour was the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Some original drawings for the book are on display there through July 15.

Andrew Farago: Being in Northern California, the show is really important to us. You read about this or you see it on the news, and it's hard to come to grips with it or put it in terms that you can understand.

This is something wonderful about comics, the healing power of it, where you can talk about things that are very personal that have happened to you.

John Yang: Fies says the heart of his family's story is told in four panels.

Brian Fies: The first panel is Karen and I in bed, and I'm sleeping away. I'm snoring.

Karen opens her eyes and she says, "I just want to go home."

And I reply, "Yes, me too."

It's such a simple thing to want to be home. And it's really all we wanted. And it's the one thing, the one simple thing, that we couldn't have.

John Yang: After a year of construction, prolonged by material and labor shortages, Brian and Karen Fies have a new house.

Brian Fies: This is kitchen stuff, right?

Karen Fies: Yes.

John Yang: It's on the same lot as their old one, but needs new, tougher, fire-resistant building standards.

Now they say their task is to make it a home.

Karen Fies: Now we're home.

Brian Fies: Now we're home.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Santa Rosa, California.

Judy Woodruff: Helping all of us have some understanding of what they went through.

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