'Thicker Than Smoke' concert caps two-day tribute to fire survivors, first responders

Country music artist Brad Paisley and actress Bonnie Hunt headlined a night of performances that paid tribute to the sacrifices and losses of many North Bay residents during October’s wildfires.|

Country singer-songwriter Brad Paisley and actress Bonnie Hunt charmed a couple thousand guests Saturday at the Green Music Center during an evening concert and conversation meant to promote the region's recovery from the October wildfires.

Between songs, the banter between Paisley and Hunt, emcee for the second night of the “Thicker Than Smoke” event, elicited laughs and tears from the audience. It included many fire survivors and first responders on the front lines of the last year's disaster.

Paisley, who performed for free, voiced his admiration for both groups.

“It's nice to do this for these folks. I always feel helpless in these kinds of situations, and it's nice to be able to do something to help,” Paisley said in an interview. “It's about gratitude for all of these people who have put their life on the line.”

Hunt was moved by audience members who lost loved ones in the fires, which killed 44 people across Northern California. She shared from the stage her grief over the sudden death of her father in a heart attack and her long search for solace.

“You will heal, you will triumph and you will live in honor of those you lost,” she said.

The two-day event kicked off Friday evening at the Green Music Center, where hundreds gathered for a storytelling session featuring 13 community members who survived the October wildfires. Saturday's two-hour performance attracted just over 2,000 guests. They filled Weill Hall and spilled onto the concert venue's lawn amid a warm summer evening.

Proceeds from ticket sales, totaling $168,070 over the two days, will go to benefit first responders who lost their homes in the fires. The Resilience Fund, a long-term fire relief fund launched by the Community Foundation Sonoma County, is overseeing the effort.

Jacob Yarrow, director of the Green Music Center, was ecstatic about the opportunity to work with Paisley and Hunt to produce a night of music for the community. Other organizers included Nancy Lasseter, co-owner of Lasseter Family Winery, and Sonoma Academy humanities teacher Brandon Spars.

“We are working to help our area recover,” Yarrow said.

The fires burning across Lake, Mendocino and Shasta counties did not go unmentioned.

Tim Siragusa, assistant chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, urged the audience to keep in mind the thousands of firefighters battling those blazes.

“I'm thinking of them tonight, and I hope you are, too,” he said from the stage.

The honorees Saturday included Tony Niel, a Santa Rosa firefighter who helped saved the life of Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki as she and her husband fled their Fountaingrove home early Oct. 9.

Barefoot and running from the fire, they stumbled upon Niel, who was driving through the area.

“He said later to me, ‘Just one minute more, and you would have been fire victims number 45 and 46,” Sakaki said.

Niel and other first responders were asked to stand, and were greeted with loud applause and cheers.

Vocalist Meggie Cansler, accompanied by guitarist Gary Vogensen, performed an emotional song called “Everything,” written by duo Mark Beynon, of Santa Rosa, and Joe Label, of Novato, during the October fires.

Beynon said his daughter fled her dream home off Riebli Road as the Tubbs fire advanced in October. She had moved in only eight days before. The home burned to the ground in minutes.

That experience and others helped inspire the song.

“In the rearview mirror, all that we had, up in flames, couldn't save a thing,” Cansler sang.

Audience members wiped away tears.

“We just listened to our friends and family, and tried to make it rhyme,” Label said of the tribute. “We wanted the emotions in the song.”

Wikiup painter Hillary Miller sold prints of her work at the event to benefit the Resilience Fund. Her artwork went viral last year when she shared her unique Christmas card on Facebook: a painting of Snoopy holding up a sign that read “Sonoma County Strong,” standing beside the Fountaingrove Round Barn that burned in the Tubbs fire.

Miller nearly lost her home in the Tubbs fire. Her neighbors, yards away, were not so fortunate.

“You're in that world between gratitude and grief,” Miller said.

With permission from Jean Schulz, widow of Peanuts' creator Charles Schulz, Miller began selling prints to benefit fire relief. She has raised over $36,000 for the cause.

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