IT WAS after midnight, and Brian Fies could see the fiery glow from the next county. He wasn’t so concerned, but his wife, Karen, had awakened to the smell of smoke.
Within several hours, where they stood would be reduced to ash and ruin.
Fies returned to his Santa Rosa neighborhood a week ago Monday, setting out at dawn beneath a salmon-gray curtain of smoke. What he saw were “black toothpick trees,” he writes in a new comic narrative, “tilting chimneys, and the twisted steel frames of garage doors.”
“My wife and I lost our home,” Fies, a science writer and artist, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Burned to the ground.” Also gone: A car and most of their possessions.
In Santa Rosa’s Tubbs fire that destroyed thousands of homes last week, Fies also lost a lifetime of his original cartoon artwork. “The only pieces that survive,” he says, “are the few that I gave to friends and family, plus one page from ‘Mom’s Cancer’ that’s currently in a museum exhibition.”
“Mom’s Cancer” is Fies’s Eisner Award-winning webcomic turned graphic novel — a textured family memoir that was his way of processing a parent’s medical journey. Now, a dozen years later, he has created the webcomic “A Fire Story” to document this tragedy.
“When I began working on my ‘Fire’ comic, my wife said the same thing she did when I began ‘Mom’s Cancer’: ‘Well, it’ll be good therapy for you.’
“It is that, but I really see my main motivation as bearing witness,” Fies says. “ ‘I was there — this is what I saw.’ I was a newspaper reporter for a few years after college and have been a freelance writer since, and this comic, like ‘Mom’s Cancer,’ feels like doing journalism to me. I’m using words plus pictures to explain what happened and tell the truth as best I can.”
That truth includes the uncommon fury with which the Northern California wildfires have raged, killing at least 40 people in the state’s deadliest series of fires in 80 years. His community’s Tubbs Fire caught 50-mph winds a week ago, turning the blaze into a “napalm tsunami,” he writes in the comic, with his house — just north of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center — sitting “at the tip of a bellows feeding a blast furnace.”
Karen Fies, a veteran social services worker, is director of Sonoma County Human Services, so she has been “working long days as part of [the] county’s emergency response team,” her husband says. “She says staying busy keeps her mind off of our loss, and I expect we’ll both be hit by waves of grief when we have time to stop and think.”
Brian Fies (author of “Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?”) says his own constructive energy is best spent on his 18-page, “single news dispatch from the front,” as he calls it, and he might continue to draw what he sees in this still-unfolding tragedy. “That’s one of the beauties of a webcomic: It can evolve and take whatever shape you want. I think there’ll be a good story to tell about recovery, but am not sure I’m equipped to tell it.”
Meanwhile, Fies is appreciating the feedback to “A Fire Story.” “It’s attracting extraordinarily kind and compassionate readers,” he says. “People who’ve been through it here or elsewhere say I’ve captured their experience, which is about the best compliment I can get.”
“One thing I think is true is that readers respond to authenticity,” says Fies. “They sense the difference between someone who’s lived an experience and someone who’s faking it. I think in order to be good, a story has to tell the truth. I did the best I could.”