“This all feels horribly familiar, yet also different,” says Fies, a science writer and Eisner Award-winning cartoonist, about the raging Kincade Fire, which has destroyed nearly 200 buildings, including more than 80 homes.
“In 2017, we knew our house was gone six or seven hours after we left it. We even said at the time that there was some small comfort in knowing that the fire couldn’t hurt us any more than it already had,” continues Fies, who in that immediate aftermath created a viral Web comic about his experience, using what few art tools he could find.
“A Fire Story,” which he called “a first-person report from the front line of a disaster,” was adapted into a graphic novel published this year.
Now, nearly a week into the Kincade Fire, Fies says: “We still don’t really know if our home will survive, let alone hundreds and thousands of other homes that are threatened.” As of Wednesday morning, the Kincade Fire was only 30 percent contained, having burned more than 76,000 acres across Sonoma County.
“The next few days will be critical,” Fies says, amid a red flag warning Wednesday.
Fies and his wife, Karen, a veteran social services worker, rebuilt on the site of their home that burned down in 2017, and he says the current fire came within a few miles at one point. On Saturday, they evacuated to their relatives’ house to the south, closer to San Francisco.
Although they’re physically safe, Fies says the Kincade Fire is triggering some of the trauma from 2017.
“Honestly, a lot of us are still a mess,” Fies says. “Emotionally, I'm mostly numb — optimistically fatalistic. As the Kincade Fire grew, and we started to smell the smoke and get the alarms, it was impossible not to be thrown back to two years ago and think, ‘Not again.’
“We've all got a lot of anxiety and PTSD that shows up in weird ways.”
One of those traumatic details, he says, is how smoke-filled air muffles and deadens noise. “I’d forgotten that sensation from the 2017 fires until the Kincade Fire brought it rushing back and raised the hairs on the back of my neck.”
Past disaster is also a fierce teacher this time around. “I didn't take the threat seriously two years ago. Even as we packed the car, I didn't think anything bad would really happen,” Fies says. “That's one of those mistakes I regret. This time, as I packed, I assumed I'd never see my house again.”
“It almost felt like a do-over opportunity,” he adds, “to fix the regrets and avoid the mistakes I made the first time.”
Meanwhile, Karen Fies, as director of Sonoma County Human Services, is overseeing the setup of shelters and the emergency care of her department’s clients, including the elderly, the disabled and foster children.
“With 200,000 people on the move, that's a big job that demands a lot of flexibility,” the cartoonist says. “Where can you find 1,000 cots? Who's going to provide breakfast for 500 people?”
Fies is taking notes and sketching — material that could find its way into an updated edition of “A Fire Story.” And one detail that resonates with him this time is the resignation in the eyes of his fellow Santa Rosa residents as they evacuated.
“A lot of my neighbors just looked at each other with a deep weariness and said, ‘If it burns again, I can’t come back.’ That’s true for us, too, I think. We’re done,” Fies says. “Even if our neighborhood pulls through just fine, some of them said they can’t keep living like this.”
“Home is supposed to be a peaceful refuge, not a source of hypervigilant fear,” he notes. “I understand.”