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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

While a student at Redwood Adventist Academy, Eric Ritz liked talk a lot in class, frequently landing him in lunch detention out by the lamppost on the east end of campus.

Ritz had not been on the 23-acre Mark West Springs Road campus since October’s Tubbs fire barreled down the ridge and leveled the private K-12 school north of Santa Rosa. But he returned Saturday to share fond memories of his time there and a message of hope and optimism for the future during the annual Alumni Weekend celebration.

“I cannot express how weirdly, genuinely happy I was to drive into the parking lot and see that of all the things that burned down, the lamppost was still there. I parked right in front of it,” said Ritz, a 1998 graduate and Sonoma County accountant who spoke at the event.

Dozens of current and former students and their families attended the celebration, which kicked off with a special worship service under a large white tent set up near where the preschool and primary school buildings once stood.

“The fires may have taken away your familiar campus,” Ritz, 37, said to the crowd. “But they won’t at all take away your memories, these moments, this community you fostered. No matter where you end up, you’ll treasure them.”

Dee Ross, the school’s administrative assistant and alumni coordinator, said the event gave former and current students a chance to heal and move beyond the fire’s destruction.

“Redwood was my first safe haven,” said Ross, who graduated in 2001 and returned to the school as an employee three years ago. “It was family. It’s home away from home.”

After the service, families shared a traditional Adventist haystack lunch, which consisted of corn chips topped with beans, grated cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa — similar to a vegetarian taco salad. They then kicked off their music festival, Redwoodstock, this year featuring five local Christian bands and student performances.

With electricity still not restored to the site, they relied on generators.

The Alumni Weekend was their first event held on campus since clearing the charred rubble a month ago.

Haley Westley was overwhelmed to see Saturday what little was left of the school, where she graduated in 1998 and where her late father, Rob Fenderson, spent nearly 30 years as a teacher and principal. The last time the 38-year-old Napa resident visited the campus was two years ago for her father’s memorial service.

“I choked up when I saw it. It’s not what I remember,” she said as she looked around. “I’m hopeful they’re going to rebuild.”

Those plans are in the works, but there’s much to be done before then. Save for a playground, little else survived on the campus, which was built nearly five decades ago by school volunteers. By Saturday, most of the burn scars were covered in grass and wildflowers.

“What struck me was all the green grass,” said Laurie Wood, a 1988 graduate and school foundation member who picked flowers to decorate for the event.

“Nature is beautiful. It’s just so healing,” said Wood, whose two children attended the school.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The school’s foundation was crushed up into gravel and remains piled two stories high in the middle of campus. Some of it will be used for the foundation of the new school, which could be completed within two years, Principal Angie Weems said.

“We’ll have a little part of our past be part of the future,” she said to the crowd.

Weems said they’ll be installing donated portables so that the 90 or so primary and middle school students can return to the site this fall. After the fire, the kids moved into the downtown Santa Rosa Seventh-day Adventist Church, where staff and teachers had to find creative ways for students to burn off extra energy since they don’t have any playground or ball fields.

The 35 high schoolers moved into spare classrooms at Rio Lindo Adventist Academy east of Healdsburg, where they’ll likely have to remain for at least another year. Weems said they’re suspending the high school program for at least a year until they can figure out what they can afford to rebuild.

She said the school is getting a $13 million insurance settlement, but it could cost $20 million to rebuild.

It’s not the first fire to devastate Redwood Adventist Academy. Founded 87 years ago, a fire destroyed the original school house on Wright Road in southwest Santa Rosa after a boiler exploded in the early 1940s. The school was rebuilt and used until 1971, when the Mark West Springs campus was built.

Dudley Willard, 82, of Santa Rosa, was among the parents who helped in that project. He and his family had just moved to the area from Redding.

“As kids, my brother and I helped set bricks,” said his daughter, Cindy Danner, 58, of Santa Rosa.

She and her daughter, Kai Danner, a 2016 Redwood graduate, attended Saturday’s celebration with Willard, who volunteered for many years as an auto shop teacher and helped maintain the grounds. The fires claimed his tools, including lawn mowers, tractors and other equipment stored on campus.

“We look forward to having the school re-established so the next generation can enjoy the same camaraderie,” said Willard, who plans to pitch in with the rebuilding.

“This is God’s place,” his daughter added. “His desire is for us to survive and thrive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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