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PETALUMA — “She was gasping,” Kevin Garcia remembers.

On the phone was Garcia’s girlfriend, Piner senior Jackie Gutierrez. It was the early hours of Monday morning and Gutierrez was fleeing from her home on Nina Court as smoke choked the air and embers swirled around in the storm of fire engulfing her Coffey Park neighborhood.

“It was so scary,” Garcia said. “She said there were ashes and sparks and she said she couldn’t see anything but her family leaving.”

Cars were driving up on the sidewalk, knocking down mailboxes as drivers panicked to escape, Gutierrez said. When she and a cousin tried to get out of the car and walk, the smoke and debris in the air turned them back.

As Gutierrez calmly tells me about her harrowing night, her mom, Teodora, sits nearby. Her eyes are ringed red. She rubs her face often. When the tears come, she dabs her eyes.

Their house, along with hundreds of others in their Santa Rosa neighborhood, was burned to the ground.

Jackie Gutierrez has little other than her phone and the Piner High cross country team sweatshirt she’s had since joining the team her freshman year. Her family has been staying at the shelter at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma since Monday.

Gone are her pink New Balance racing shoes; gone is the roller she used to massage away pain in her achy legs; gone are the photo booth pictures of her and her boyfriend and Piner teammate, Garcia.

With so much gone, Gutierriez is doing her best to focus on what remains.

School has been closed since Monday for the vast majority of Sonoma County campuses and athletic events have been canceled indefinitely. But at the shelter in Petaluma, there was a definite feeling of team.

After all, in addition to Gutierrez, cross country runner Manny Delgado is also evacuated from his home. So Garcia and his brother pitched a tent on the lawn outside the shelter dormitory. Then came teammate Jonny Vargas and former runner Sam Garcia. They would stay, too.

“I think we have a really close bond,” Kevin Garcia said. “I think this represents how close we are willing to be.”

On Wednesday, the gang was playing Clue and keeping each other company. Earlier in the day they started a soccer game for all comers. At night, they are on duty, volunteering to man the supply area.

“So many close friends to me lost their homes,” Sam Garcia said.

“I’m just trying to help people,” he said. “As long as they stay, I’m staying.”

Jackie Gutierrez misses running but she misses her teammates more, so having Kevin Garcia, Sam Garcia, Vargas and Delgado around has helped keep her stable. That part hasn’t been easy — her loss is so monumental, she gets emotional even as she tries not to.

“I can’t ask more from them,” she said, looking at her teammates playing board games at the next table over. “They care about me but they care about the community, too.”

Gutierrez said she has to be strong for her parents as well as her younger siblings who are nine and six years old.

“I’ve had to show them I’m comfortable being here so they are comfortable being here,” she said.

And her parents are crushed.

Gutierrez’s parents came to Santa Rosa from Mexico 21 years ago. They bought the Nina Court house and slowly made it their own. They just put a new roof on and retiled the floor. Jackie just painted her closet door and put a new bed in her room. They also lost three automobiles. Gutierrez and her dad both work at Carrows restaurant on Cleveland Avenue. It’s unclear how they’ll get to work now.

“It makes me feel like we lost so much of their progress, their work over 21 years,” she said. It’s the only time she looks as if she might cry.

Gutierrez is trying to help her parents sort through insurance, secure temporary housing, get transportation and deal with every other heartbreak, small and large, that has emerged since Monday morning.

It seems like a lot for a 17-year-old high school student.

“I feel like I’m carrying a lot, but it’s worth carrying,” she said.

But that doesn’t means she isn’t eager to get back to school and to return to cross country workouts.

“Running is a form of therapy for me,” she said.

And she could use the boost that running gives her now more than ever. She may not have those workouts or the meets right now, but she has her team. Her coaches came to the shelter Wednesday and, of course, her teammates aren’t going anywhere.

“We’ll get through it,” she said. “We’re not alone, you know?”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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