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If You Go

THICKER THAN SMOKE: An Evening Of Community Storytelling

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3

Where: Weill Hall at the Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Admission: $15

Information: 866-955-6040, gmc.sonoma.edu

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When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4

Where: Weill Hall and Lawn at the Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Admission: Tickets start at $45

Information: 866-955-6040, gmc.sonoma.edu

Eight months have passed since catastrophic wildfires swept Northern California, including Sonoma County, but in a sense, the smoke — that is, the residual cloud of memories, raw emotion, and gratitude mixed with inevitable regret — still lingers.

With that in mind, the organizers of the two-day “Thicker Than Smoke” event at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center next week plan to present a variety of voices, ranging from local responders who lost their homes during the fires, to country music star Brad Paisley and actress Bonnie Hunt.

“I think it’s really nice that people are getting together to remind each other that people are still living with this disaster,” said Sonoma Academy humanities teacher Brandon Spars, who helped put together “Thicker Than Smoke: An Evening of Community Storytelling” for the first night of the program on Friday, Aug. 3.

“A lot of the people who suffered in the fires had a lot of support right at the beginning, because it was something we had gone through, but along the way I think some of those people who lost their homes felt like the community moved on, and they were still left behind,” Spars said.

The plan is to have at least 10 speakers share their experiences with the fire, and their thoughts about the aftermath. Then on Saturday, Aug. 4, the second night of the program, titled “Thicker Than Smoke: An Acoustic Evening with Brad Paisley, Bonnie Hunt & Friends,” some videos of highlights from the first night’s storytelling will be shown.

Paisley and Hunt, who know each other and both have friends in Sonoma County, had made it known they would be willing to help raise money for fire recovery, said Jacob Yarrow, executive director of the Green Music Center.

“I guess at some level, famous people just know each other,” Yarrow said with a laugh. “Bonnie Hunt is going to tell some stories, probably on the funny side, and act as the emcee of the event. One of things that makes me excited about this event is that it’s going to be a unique way to see Brad Paisley perform — just him with his guitar. He’s a great guitarist, songwriter and a storyteller himself.”

Discussions about putting on a community event to benefit fire victims began in November, shortly after the fires, Yarrow said.

“We decided to do something this summer. The fire recovery, obviously, will be ongoing for years,” he explained. “So having a chance this summer to continue to focus on those needs seemed like a good time to do it.”

All proceeds from the two events will benefit first responders who suffered losses in the October fires, which destroyed nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County alone. The money will go to the Resilience Fund, a long-term relief fund overseen by Community Foundation Sonoma County.

Speakers for the community storytelling event on Aug. 3 will include local historian and Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron, as well as Pat Kerrigan, news director of KSRO Radio, who went on the air shortly after the fires broke out and broadcast news and emergency information for the next 12 hours.

Spars also reached out to firefighters and police officers, as well as other area residents who experienced the fires, to come onstage and tell their stories.

“I am bringing a very young person, a 16-year-old, in to give a voice to the younger generation,” Spars said. “Her family lost their home. Her name is Jennifer Rink. She is one of my students at Sonoma Academy actually, but I believe she’s up to the challenge of telling a heartfelt story in front of a large group of people.”

Even experienced first responders may need to take deep breaths before sharing their feelings with a full house, Spars said.

“It takes courage,” he said. “It’s hard enough to tell your story without breaking down when it’s just one on one,” he said.

Among the storytellers will be Santa Rosa emergency room doctor Josh Weil and his wife, Claire Mollard.

“He was evacuating Kaiser Hospital while he was on the phone with her as flames entered their yard,” Spars said. “It’s an incredible story, and they’ll both be telling it.”

Audience members also will be able to fill out cards with short comments that can be shared from the stage.

Spars, who regularly puts on storytelling events, believes that the human voice packs more emotion than any over-produced special effects spectacle.

“This is going to be strictly the spoken word,” he said. “It’s pure storytelling. There’s something very primal in that. People reach one another at a deep level.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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