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This cartoonist drew what it was like to lose almost everything in the California wildfires

Just one day after his house and everything in it burned to the ground in the California wildfires last month, Santa Rosa cartoonist Brian Fies bought some cheap paper, Sharpies, and highlighters, and got to work reporting what he and his wife had seen the night before.

The resulting cartoon came quickly, with more raw edges than Fies’ usual standards, but it was undeniably honest.

“I still have that newspaper reporter bug — that I’ve got to tell the story,” Fies says of the comic’s urgency, which included Fies returning the next morning to find his house in Larkfield, California, destroyed. “I was an eyewitness to something very unusual, and I felt like I just had to report it.”

The response to his comic was massive. In the week after the fire, an online version of “A Fire Story,” was viewed by more than half a million people.

Now, KQED Arts has animated his story. in the video above, with narration straight from Fies and his wife Karen. “A Fire Story” tells the story of losing his home, and the long process of recovery.

“I picked my way down the middle of the street to avoid smoldering debris,” he wrote of seeing his house and neighborhood after the fires. “Black toothpick trees, madly tilting chimneys, and the twisted steel frames of garage doors. Hell.”

Though he and his wife had grabbed some belongings before they evacuated, much was left behind: photo strips taken with his family at the county fair, his grandpa’s field cap from WWII, everything he’d ever drawn.

But in an epilogue, the artist says that maybe they’ll come to appreciate their fresh start, though not for a long time.

“Well-meaning people say it’s just stuff. But it was our stuff. Stuff we created. Stuff we treasured. Stuff from ancestors we wanted our descendants to have,” he says. “Stuff is a marker of time and memory. It’s home.”

Most meaningful for Fies is the comfort and understanding “A Fire Story” has brought to others — people like his neighbor, whose house was also lost to the fire, and who reads it to her grandchildren every night at their request.

“It really helps the kids process some of that trauma of what happened to this house and place they loved. And kind of reassures them, not now, but someday … we are going to be okay.”

Video by Farrin Abbott and Kelly Whalen. Text by Gabe Meline.

This report originally appeared on KQED. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member and public radio stations around the nation.

See more from KQED’s project featuring stories of artists and culture makers impacted by the fires, “Up From the Ashes.”

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