Words

A Fire Story

Burning down the house

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A recent report by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center and the National Interagency Fire Center calling for this year’s wildfire potential to be “above normal” in the Pacific Northwest may have Whatcom County residents already thinking about the threat of local fires and another summer of smoke-filled air. But what would it be like to lose everything you own to fire?

Writer and cartoonist Brian Fies explores exactly that in his new graphic memoir, A Fire Story. In October 2017, his home was completely destroyed by wildfires that raged through Northern California when unusually strong winds and hot, dry conditions ignited 11 major fires in an eight-county area, burning 8,900 structures and killing 44 people.

Brian and his wife, Karen, had little time to consider what to take with them when awakened at 1:30am and instructed to evacuate now, but the idea that there would be nothing left to return to was unthinkable. In an early illustration, Fies sketches “clothes I packed” and “stuff we grabbed,” the drawings a heartbreaking reminder their possessions could be reduced to this paltry list.

A few pages later is the drawing “things I will never see again,” a list that includes his grandmother’s Depression-era glass candy jar, Christmas ornaments made by their daughters, family photos, a lifetime of drawings and paintings—and simply ends “everything else.”

Several days pass before homeowners are officially allowed to return to sift through the charred remains. They are issued safety kits with Hazmat gear to protect them from the ashes, a chemical stew of potential poisons from the variety of burned materials. Their first find was some charred and broken holiday decorations, found near the surface because they had been stored in the garage rafters.

A neighbor, Larry, matter-of-factly reflected that everything from their homes was still there, “it just changed shape;” a sentiment that provided little comfort.

In a disengaged way, Fies finds the science behind the temperature at which things will burn oddly fascinating: concrete pops, flakes and crumbles at about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, glass light fixtures liquefy at about 1,400 degrees, and appliances and steel I-beams sag at about 2,600.

In the aftermath of the fire, Fies finds himself chasing down smoke smells in the surrounding countryside, usually just leading to a legal burn barrel or brush pile. He is aware he paid no attention to smoke smells prior to the fire, but calls it a “socially responsible form of PTSD.”

Advice about what he learned? At the risk of sounding cliché, “appreciate every day to its fullest” and “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Also, if ever asked to evacuate, assume you won’t ever see your house and belongings again and know what is in your insurance policy. And that even when everything is lost, home can still be the hope and promise of once again having a place that is shared with people you love and things that are hosts to your memories.

Beautifully written and illustrated, A Fire Story explores heartbreaking loss, stages of grief and, most importantly, the resilience that is invoked in families and communities hit by devastating tragedies such as wildfire.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

More Words...
Foodwise
Starting small, ending big

Late last summer, Huxley professor Gigi Berardi signed a contract to publish her book, FoodWISE: A Whole Systems Guide to Sustainable and Delicious Food Choices, shortly before she left the country on sabbatical.

By the time she returned home to Bellingham, she had discovered that what…

more »
Book Clubbing
Paging new members

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to read more in 2020, it might behoove you to know there are approximately 30 book clubs in Whatcom County designed to help you achieve that page-turning goal.

That may seem like an awful lot to choose from, but when you consider the varied…

more »
Library Road Trip
A countywide journey

A year ago, when Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) staff first brainstormed ways to commemorate our 75th anniversary, we thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to take a giant road trip to each of our 10 libraries and a bookmobile stop the day of our actual anniversary?” 

So on Nov. 7,…

more »
Events
Today
A Forest of Words Poetry Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Beauty and the Beast

7:00pm|BAAY Theater

The Curious Savage

7:00pm|Alger Community Church

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Space Trek

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Sedro-Woolley Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Birding for Kids

2:30pm

An American in Paris

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

An American in Paris

7:30pm

Tomorrow
Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Birding for Kids

2:30pm

MLK Day Work Party

9:00am|Barr Creek

MLK Day of Service Work Party

10:00am|Whatcom Creek

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Read-In

10:00am|Village Books

Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Celebration

12:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Teen Art Club

3:00pm|Blaine Library

Community Soup Kitchen

6:00pm|Little Cheerful Cafe

Cider U

6:30pm|Thousand Acre Cider House

Poetrynight

7:00pm|Alternative Library

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event

7:00pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

Tuesday
Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Tea for Beginners

2:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Cook It and Book It

3:30pm|Lynden Library

Community Conversations Book group

4:00pm|Village Books

All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Intro to Improv

7:00pm|Improv Playworks

Books on Tap

7:00pm|North Fork Brewery

see our complete calendar »