In September of 2020, forest fires raged throughout Oregon, claiming lives, destroying homes, and causing nearly a week of the worst air quality ever recorded in Multnomah County. Coupled with a worldwide pandemic, it was a difficult time to be creative. However in the case of cartoonist Breena Bard—whose previous work Trespassers won the 2022 Oregon Book Award—the circumstances set her on the task of writing her new graphic novel, Wildfire.

Typically squeezing in a few hours before her son began online kindergarten, Bard penned a story about a middle-schooler named Julianna, whose family must quickly pack essentials and evacuate their rural Oregon home, as a massive fire looms. Viewed through the eyes of Julianna and her younger sister, Stella, the scene unfolds with emotion. Even for the author. 

“Any time I was writing, or rewriting, or illustrating,” Bard told the Mercury, “every time I went through that scene, it brought those feelings back and made me feel really sad for those characters, even though they’re invented.” 

It still hits close to home for Bard. Although there were no official evacuation orders during Clackamas County fire in September 2020, Bard and her family were concerned enough to begin preparations to leave their home.

Cartoonist Breena Bard at her desk in 2023. PHOTO BY MARK LORE

“I relate to Julianna in the sense that she had a safe and comfortable life, and then everything suddenly changed,” Bard said. “It was my wakeup call that this wasn’t a theoretical issue that affected other people, it was all of a sudden affecting our life in a real way.”

Things end tragically for Julianna and her family. After losing their home, most of their possessions, and even some of their livestock to the fire, the family relocates to Portland, where the members each deal with the trauma in their own ways. The sisters' well-intentioned parents put on a strong face for their children, and later join climate-change protests. Julianna, who knows the fire was started by careless boys shooting off fireworks, reluctantly joins a conservation club. 

From there, Wildfire focuses on the broader picture: How climate change impacts our lives, and what we can do—and especially what young people can do—to help stave off its effects.

“That was always a pretty important message I wanted to explore,” explained Bard. “Some of the ‘classic’ forms of activism—protests and being very loud and vocal, the things that are elevated as activism—can be really uncomfortable, especially for someone like [Julianna], who’s still processing her loss and her trauma. But that shouldn’t take you out of the fight.”

The book examines the overall human impact on the environment and, through Julianna and her new friends, shows practical ways kids can participate, whether by writing letters, volunteering, or planting trees. Wildfire also deftly looks at the destruction from the standpoint of the person directly responsible for the catastrophe, bringing to mind the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, which burned 50,000 acres east of Portland.

Writing for middle-schoolers is a natural choice for the author. For Bard, it was the age she became immersed in books and set her on her path. And, as with Julianna, it’s a crucial time when kids are forming their understanding of the world, and beginning to find their place in it. 

Bard has already started work on her next graphic novel, which will touch on the topic of literacy by way of an old-fashioned ghost story. In the meantime, Wildfire is receiving attention for its easily digestible take on a topic that can feel daunting, and sometimes even hopeless.

“I hope the book gives kids language to talk about some of these issues,” Bard said. “And also empowers kids to know that, not only are they valued in the conversation, they’re absolutely critical.”

Breena Bard appears in conversation local cartoonist Jonathan Hill at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Sat Sept 30, 3 pm, FREE, all ages