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To see photos from graduations around Sonoma County go here

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.

To see photos from graduations around Sonoma County go here

But by that morning her house was gone. She moved in to her aunt’s home nearby, and by Thanksgiving she had transitioned into a rented apartment with her family. They plan to rebuild on their homesite.

Like many other fire survivors, Garnica said the fires upended her life. At the time, she was focused on college applications, friends and schoolwork.

The flames claimed cherished mementos: the photo album of her quinceañera, videos of her childhood, dried flower bouquets from happy occasions.

“It might be junk to someone else, but those were the traces I had of my life,” Garnica said. “To this day that hurts me the most.”

She misses having a backyard. She used to borrow her dad’s ladder and climb onto the roof with a pillow, blanket and headphones, where she’d lie and watch the sky.

“I would stay there as long as I could,” Garnica said. “It was my quiet time. My sanctuary.”

She hasn’t found a new refuge since her home burned down. But she has found support from her school community.

“Piner helped me because it’s so inclusive. You feel comfortable talking to everybody. My teachers were great. After the fires, my teachers were so empathetic. The school was a place I felt safe,” she said.

The school funneled donations to her in various ways. After the fires, she received a new laptop, notebooks, pencils, binders, toiletries, clothing, food, soccer cleats, a gift card to buy soccer socks, and more.

And there was emotional support.

“The principal was very vocal about all the help that was available,” Garnica said.

In his remarks at the ceremony, Principal Zalunardo spoke of the importance of community.

“No one can reflect on learning this year without thinking about the ways that October deeply impacted all of us and our understanding of ourselves,” Zalunardo said. “Community support, friendship, love and bonds that we’re never going to forget through our lifetimes were forged in the heat of that disaster. And out of that, comes a new sense of self, a newly formed knowledge of who we are in relation to one another.”

The past eight months have been full of ups and downs for the class of 2018. But Garnica — who plans to attend Sacramento State University for a criminal justice degree — say she’s never appreciated life more.

“I’m excited for the future. I’m glad I passed my finals. I’m glad I made it,” she said. “(The fire) was something unexpected. I can’t be mad it happened. It made me appreciate what I had, my family, even a small homework assignment that I get to do. It changed my whole outlook on life.”

She paused to reflect and let the meaning of Friday’s passage settle in.

“It made me more mature,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com.

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