Amid the balloons, flowers, white and maroon caps and gowns, a sense of triumph was palpable Friday at Piner High School’s graduation ceremony.
In the crowd, where families calmed babies and older relatives were assisted into bleacher seats, proud father Ciriaco Gutierrez, who lost his home in the October fires, watched his daughter, Jacqueline, walk across the Jim Underhill Stadium to receive her diploma.
“The fires changed our lives,” Gutierrez said. “She made it.”
His family now lives in a rented apartment near the school, but it’s not the same as being in their old house, he said.
Twenty-four of Piner’s 260 graduating seniors lost their homes in the wildfires that burned through Sonoma County in the fall. Many lived in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.
Piner student Oscar Villalobos Campos, 17, said in his graduation speech that the Piner community became closer after the fires.
“We gave each other shelter, aid and even clothes off of our very backs. Teachers worked tremendously hard to still get us through this year,” Villalobos Campos said to a cheering crowd. “We rose from the ash and the debris to help one another, proving that we’re not only Sonoma Strong, but we are Piner Strong.”
In his speech, Villalobos Campos also credited Antonio Chavez, head custodian at Piner, for keeping the school clean after the fires, along with Piner Principal Tim Zalunardo for “personally ensuring our security and safety.”
Villalobos Campos plans to attend Santa Rosa Junior College and transfer to a school in Southern California to study music engineering or production.
But his love for Santa Rosa was only deepened during the disaster.
“I want to come back here and settle down,” he said in an interview.
A total of 1,700 high school students — including 94 who lost their homes in the fires — were set to graduate from Santa Rosa’s public high schools this week, and commencement ceremonies were scheduled across the county through the weekend and into next week.
Piner’s class valedictorian, Samantha Stolte, lost her Coffey Park home in the wildfires, where she had lived with her family since she was born. They are living with her grandparents and plan to rebuild.
“All things considered I think my family ended up OK,” Stolte said.
She said it was hard being out of school in the weeks following the initial firestorm.
“I’ve never wanted to go back to school more in my life, just to have something that was normal,” Stolte said. “It was great to see my friends again and know they’re OK.”
Stolte plans to attend CSU-Monterey and study cinematic arts and technology. She didn’t mention the fires in her speech, but touched on the themes of curiosity and choices in life.
Piner senior Leslie Garnica, a friend of Villalobos Campos, lived in a house with her family on Sansone Drive in Coffey Park before the fires.
That night, like many others, she left her home with her family in a hurry. The only thing she grabbed was her school backpack, thinking she’d need it the next day, a Monday.