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A senior year like no other for Cardinal Newman grad

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

On the lot where her family’s Fountaingrove home used to be, Rachael McGregor walked the outline of her room. She pointed to where her desk stood, her bed, her fish tank. There was the window her older brother tapped on when he got home late from a party and needed his sister to let him in. The bathroom down the hall where she and her best friend, Gigi Swenson-Aguirre, would get ready before Cardinal Newman High School football games, using eyeliner in the school’s colors — red and gold — to decorate their faces, part of their regular Friday night fall ritual.

The McGregor home burned down in the October wildfires. Including Rachael, 22 of the 131 Cardinal Newman seniors lost their homes.

From her neighborhood on Crown Hill Drive, it took 15 minutes to drive to campus on Ursuline Road. There, a week before McGregor and her classmates graduated last night, she stared through the chain-link fence that divides the Cardinal Newman grounds into two sections: what burned in the fire and what didn’t.

She can still see where the library used to stand, “by the (Virgin) Mary statue, to the right and in between the garbage cans — that’s where the entrance was.”

Nothing remains of the library, 20 classrooms and the school’s front office — all destroyed by the Tubbs fire early in the morning of Oct. 9.

The start of senior year

The fall semester began just as Rachael imagined it would.

Mornings in the school parking lot scrolling through the devotional app on her iPhone reading prayers and religious meditations. Friends piling into her roomy black SUV, talking, laughing and listening to music until class time. Sometimes getting up early enough for a sunrise ride with her beloved brown Holsteiner horse, Lenny, who she boards in Petaluma.

She and Gigi were named co-captains of the tennis team. Together, they picked out the girls’ uniforms: white tank tops with maroon skirts.

During one particularly difficult singles match in September, Rachael’s teammates watched as she went back and forth against a girl from San Francisco University High School.

The match extended to 2½ hours. Rachael was down a set before coming back to win.

“With this girl, she needed a whole new strategy,” Gigi said. “It was the match of the year. Just watching her perform at her best for more than two hours was really incredible.”

Two weeks later, just before a match, her good friend, Joe Bone, asked her to Newman’s homecoming dance, set for Oct. 7. A friend helped him pop tennis balls into a chain-link fence next to the courts to spell out “HOCO,” and then waited for Rachael to notice it. She said yes.

‘There’s a fire’

Rachael woke up at 2 a.m. Oct. 9 to her cellphone ringing. Beau Barrington, a friend and Newman’s star quarterback, was calling.

“I was like, ‘Why is Beau calling me at 2 in the morning?’”

Barrington lived in the Mark West area, and had by then already fled his family’s home. He was calling to warn her.

“He was like, ‘There’s a fire. You have to wake up your family. You have to leave right now.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ ”

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

In a daze, Rachael ran upstairs to her parents’ bedroom where her dad, Tim McGregor, was half asleep. A hotel manager in Calistoga, he had been aware of the fire hours earlier and was keeping tabs on the business property 16 miles away to make sure it would be OK. He didn’t know strong east winds had already whipped the embers across six lanes of Highway 101 into Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood — west of their home.

“He thought we might have had some more time,” Rachael said. “But then he realized.”

He told Rachael to grab the family dog and pack a bag. In under 10 minutes she and her mother, Kehaulani McGregor, were buckled into her SUV, making their way west.

Everything was on fire.

Her dad told them to head south to Mill Valley, to a family friend’s home where they would reconnect.

He followed about 15 minutes later, lingering like others did that night to wake up neighbors.

Rachael started calling friends, trying to warn them the way Beau had alerted her.

She called Gigi in Sebastopol, but there was no answer.

On Snapchat, friends were already posting messages about the fires, urging people to stay safe, and offering their homes to evacuees.

Traveling south on Highway 101, she and her mother listened to the news on the radio.

She watched as they passed cars and trees on fire, and kept telling herself everything would be fine, that she’d be returning home the next day. She even thought about the possibility that school might be canceled in the morning.

Once safe in Mill Valley, they turned on the television.

That was the first time the scope of the disaster hit Rachael.

“They were showing a house on fire in Mark West Springs, and I was like, ‘That is 10 minutes away from my house and 10 minutes away from Newman,’” she said.

About 4 a.m., she got a call from a friend she knows through the Petaluma barn where she stables Lenny. Rachael needed to come right now. They could see fire on the hills to the east, and they were evacuating all the horses.

That’s how Rachael spent the next two days: rescuing horses from all over Sonoma County as the fires raged and ashes fell around her.

While she was on call for evacuations, Rachael stayed with a riding friend in Marin County.

When she finally saw her parents again, two days later, they told her their house was gone.

A family on the move

Rachael’s family moved often when she was a kid, and the two-story house in the Fountaingrove hills was the sixth place she had called home. A year to the week her family moved in, it burned down.

In the nearly eight months since, she’s lived in four different homes.

She spent the first two weeks at her friend Haley Robertson’s house in west Santa Rosa, where Gigi and other friends regularly came over to comfort her. Next, she lived at a family friend’s home in Dry Creek Valley, where she slept on a futon. Then, there was the rental in downtown Healdsburg. She liked it there. It was closer to Gigi and Haley, and she and her dad would walk together to the movie theater downtown. In April, her family moved into a furnished rental in Bennett Valley.

The fire came at a time when her family was in transition. Her 24-year-old brother, Nick, had joined the U.S. Air Force, Rachael was preparing college applications and her dad was getting ready to change jobs. After losing their home, he took a job managing a resort in Santa Cruz.

He tries to visit as often as he can, but Rachael misses him a lot. She got to spend her spring break in Santa Cruz with him, which was nice, she said. She likes the beach.

A season to celebrate

Rachael decided to attend the University of Redlands in Southern California, where she begins classes in the fall. When she moves away, her mother will join Rachael’s father in Santa Cruz.

The McGregors are leaving Santa Rosa.

Until that happens, mother and daughter will share the Bennett Valley rental with their golden retriever, Kapono.

The home has vineyard views and a pool. It’s the first time Rachael has lived in a house with a pool.

“We decided this summer we wanted to celebrate,” Kehaulani said. “We wanted it to be a happy summer.”

The hills surrounding the home still show signs of the October fires: scorched tree trunks sprouting new growth.

Upstairs, Rachael’s bedroom closet is only half full, its contents a material reflection of the path she’s taken to endure what happened in the fall.

She has the clothes given to her by friends in the first few weeks after the fire, the new riding gear her dad took her to buy and an outfit she considered wearing for prom.

She also has the items picked up from the post-fire clothing drives Haley pushed her to attend.

Rachael knows she comes from a fortunate family, that she grew up in one of Santa Rosa’s nicest neighborhoods and attended one of the area’s elite private schools. Accepting handouts from friends and donated clothing from strangers felt awkward.

“I definitely would not have gone by myself. It just felt too weird,” she said. “My mom always used to say, ‘OK, put old clothes in a bag and we’ll bring them to Goodwill for people who need them.’ But I never thought I would be the one who needed them.”

A sparer existence

Rachael and three of her best friends — Gigi, Haley and Carleigh Greenband — gathered at her home on Memorial Day to decorate their graduation caps. Rachael’s mom picked up the supplies from craft stores, including a piece of scrapbook paper covered in rose gold glitter. Rachael chose that as the background for her cap’s design. On top she glued crimson glitter letters spelling “U of Redlands” and beneath, the school’s mascot bulldog with a red bow. Daisies formed the cap’s border.

At one point, Carleigh was making a circle and wondered whether anyone had a drawing compass. She wanted it to be perfect.

“If anyone would have a compass, it would be Kehaulani,” Rachael’s mother, Gigi said, laughing.

But she didn’t.

“We still don’t have random stuff,” Rachael told her friends. “We have stuff that’s just getting us by. This sounds really weird, but you know how you guys have seasonal clothes? Like you have summer dresses? I’m just buying clothes as the seasons are coming.”

Highs and lows

Cardinal Newman students didn’t return to their damaged campus until Jan. 22, spending the fall semester segregated by class level at four separate satellite sites: freshmen at Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa; sophomores at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor; juniors at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Rohnert Park; and seniors at St. Joseph Church in Cotati, where they used dividers to create separate classrooms inside the meeting hall.

The blaze set two eras of Rachael’s life into stark relief: There is before the fire, and there is after.

She now lives miles away from the neighborhood where she grew up, where she and her brother used to run the hills together. But her class is more unified, she said, a result of attending what was effectively a one-room school house for so many months.

And she knows herself better, how to deal with the highs and lows that can come after a world-changing loss. Most days, she said, the good outweighs the bad.

“My grades were definitely worse,” Rachael said of the immediate aftermath. “I just didn’t want to do it. After the fires, I lost my motivation to do so much.”

Her faith teacher, John Contreras, saw that she was struggling.

At one point, Contreras gave her a plush doll version of Happy from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“He was like, ‘You’re sad, and I want you to be happy,’” Rachael said.

She keeps the doll on a shelf in her new bedroom.

“(She was) a little kid just in total shock, who also didn’t have a sense of what was going to happen; she was completely lost,” Contreras said. “She’s come out of that now, and she sees it’s OK to mourn that loss.”

A tearful recognition

As part of his curriculum, Contreras has his students write in a journal where they respond to lessons and passages required for class.

When his classroom burned down, so did the journals. The company that supplies them sent a new batch to Cardinal Newman for free. In her replacement, Rachael wrote about the challenges she faced: the embarrassment about asking friends for help, taking the clothes they gave her, accepting the shelter they provided.

One day about a month after the fires, Rachael and Gigi were in theology class at St. Joseph’s, sitting in a circle of about 10 students, talking about the fires.

Gigi had heard Rachael’s story before, but for some reason, hearing her story this time, in class, was different.

Afterward, Gigi began to sob.

“I felt so stupid crying when she had gone through so much, and she didn’t shed a tear the whole day,” Gigi said. “But she was still there for me. I stood there for like five minutes, uncontrollably crying, and I was probably so loud. She was able to look past her own grief and her own struggles with the fires and support me.”

A fresh start

Tennis season for Cardinal Newman resumed nine days after the fires broke out, and Rachael closed out her fourth season by leading the team to the North Bay League championship title and advancing to the North Coast Sectional semifinals.

She has been competing in international equestrian events since she was 13, and in the fall she’ll bring her horse to college to continue training.

She has a new boyfriend who likes to hold her hand.

In her final AP English class, Rachael and her classmates gathered in a circle, talking about how much Cardinal Newman meant, and how crucial going through the fires together had been.

“We’re really connected,” she said outside of class. “I know I could start a conversation with anyone.”

Senior classmates voted her and Gigi as the “Best Friends” superlative. A photo of the two in the yearbook shows them hugging one another tightly, holding a sign that says “BFFs” and beaming at the camera.

Rachael finished with a GPA of 3.8 and graduated Saturday night at Cardinal Newman wearing the gold cords of an honor student.

She wore a new white dress from Abercrombie and wedges she bought for the occasion.

As she walked across the Cardinal Newman football field, where her family watched with pride from the stands, she was ready for the next chapter of her life.

Like many classmates, her feelings about going away are complicated. She’ll miss her friends and family and Sonoma County, but her future roommate won’t know about the fires, and that sounds nice. Conversations won’t always end, as they seem to now, with the fact that her house burned down. She’ll be able to start fresh.

“I just need to go away and live somewhere else,” she said. “To not be reminded about it all the time, like I am when I’m driving places. When I go to college, no one will know.”

For a while, she was worried that she and her friends would drift apart when they moved away.

But the fires taught her so much about those relationships, and she has grown more confident in her bonds with friends.

In one of her final faith classes, Contreras had students respond in their journals to a passage about the difference between young and old love. Young love is about being happy, while old love is wanting someone else to be happy, it read.

“I am sad every day at the thought of leaving my friends,” Rachael wrote. “I am scared they will find new friends and not want to spend time with me as much. After reading this article, I realize it is OK. I want them to be happy, just like how they made me happy. I wish them ‘old love.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.