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.