Perseverance on The Nush: Fire victims celebrate on The Nushagak River

It’s been a long and arduous journey for our group to get this far. A reunion of eight fishermen from Sonoma County, California, is comprised of a group of friends who have much to be grateful for and their story of Perseverance on The Nush is now complete.

Alaska and California share many parallels. Incredible natural resources like salmon grace both states and, unfortunately, so do some natural disasters making headlines these days like earthquakes and wild fires. You may recall back in October 2017 the largest firestorm took place in Santa Rosa, California, destroying a tremendous amount of property and taking the lives of 44 people. The Tubbs Fire burned more than 210,000 acres and destroyed 5643 structures, making it one of the deadliest wildfire events in the United States during the past century.

California wild fires in October 2019 devastated the area.

One year ago we decided to reunite this summer with a 4th of July trip to the Nushagak River to celebrate our survival, escape from the flames, the progress of our rebuilds, and to move ahead with new lives. Each one of us fishermen was affected in some way by the fire and they all have a unique story to share. This October represents the two year mark since that frightful night. As time moves forward it slowly becomes a distant memory tucked away in some part of our gray matter. Fear and sadness is replaced with cheers and laughter, all part of our healing process.

In July 2017 I returned from my first ever trip to Nushagak River Adventures Lodge with an ice chest full of salmon fillets. Santa Rosa was my home for the last 37 years, a home I share with my two Great Pyrenees and girlfriend Becki. As an avid fisherman and hunter my home was your traditional “Man Cave” marked by trophy mounts, all kinds of guns, an over abundance of fishing gear, and wildlife prints. It is nestled high on a hill against Annadel State Park surrounded by a vast amount of oaks and madrone trees. Although our property was well maintained the local forest was not kind that night—fierce winds and dry conditions added to the complete and inevitable destruction of everything I owned.

At 2:30 am the next door neighbor called to warn me of the impending doom that was hurling its way towards my house. As I opened the front door, ash rained down, and I could hear the eerie sounds of propane tanks blowing up. The glow of the fire was close and there wasn’t much time left to do anything but grab my girlfriend and the two dogs, and rush them into the Hummer. All I had at that point was my cellphone, wallet, and the clothes on my back. I called to wake up three neighbors just before hopping in the crowded vehicle.

Perseverance on The Nush

Bill Sirvatka’s house in ruins.

Time ran out quickly. I remember driving through flames and smoke as we made our way down the only escape road. Nothing survived, all that remained at the old homestead was the chimney and ham radio towers. Like many folks I was underinsured for the amount of loss that struck that night. The guns in the safes were destroyed and anything that looked like it might have survived turned to rust over time. Sifting through the ashes for coins and mementos resulted in a few keepsakes but otherwise it was total ruins. My family was lucky to get out alive.

Next in line is Tom Decker, his son, Joe, and wife, Jennifer. They lived in the quaint little town of Glen Ellen, California. Their house was near ground zero where the fire first struck. Tom’s place suffered the same outcome. With little or no warning his wife, kids, father-in-law, and dog all got in their vehicles and drove to safety. There was so much chaos because no one knew where the fire was headed and where it was safe to travel. Grid lock was everywhere, and emergency personnel were busy trying to evacuate people from the path of the firestorm. Tom had lived in his house for over 20 years and in one night it was all gone. This fire was so overwhelming that they finally had to call in the National Guard to get control of it. It burned freely for 5- to 6 days as their primary goal was to save lives and evacuate the elderly from local care facilities. It took almost a week before they let anyone back home to inspect the damage. The next steps for Tom’s family was to find places for everyone to live while they rebuilt their home. Finding rentals was difficult and very expensive. The fire victims have 24 months of insurance for temporary housing and the clock is running out for many. Finding contractors, laborers. and materials remains a difficult and expensive ordeal.

Perseverance on The Nush

Ken Howe, MD, pictured with guide Brent Seamans, turned 80 years old during our reunion on The Nush.

The next casualty is Ken Howe, MD, who found trouble by association. Ken lives in Santa Rosa proper near the community called Coffee Park. This fire was so huge that it jumped the freeway and took out neighborhoods in the flatlands. Ken dodged a bullet when the winds shifted and moved away from his house. He didn’t come out unscathed, however. Ken turned 80 on our Nushagak trip this year and it’s difficult to maneuver or lift his drift boat at his house by himself, so two months prior to the fire a decision was made to store his drift boat at my house. As you can imagine the drift boat melted due to the high intensity of the fire and his boat is no more.

Ken’s 22-foot ocean boat was stored at his son’s house. As luck would have it, next his son’s house completely burned down. Ken found himself without any boats. The only one just a little bit happy was his wife Shirley who worried about him on the water at his age. Since the fire I bought a replacement drift boat and Ken found a beautiful Arima so he can continue to chase ocean salmon and lingcod!

Marc and Rick are two lucky guys. Their homes survived even though they lived next to the Coffee Park subdivision which was totally devastated. They were evacuated like many others that night. They were packed and ready to leave at a moment’s notice. They had to breathe the same smoke we did for a week and were instrumental in offering support and aid to the rest of us. Thanks to Marc for spending time sifting in the ashes for my treasures and exposing himself to the usual toxins.

Perseverance on The Nush

Bill Sirvatka’s home is being rebuilt.

Last of all, we have one contractor in our group. After the fire, Bill Lage, from Sticks and Stones Construction, stepped up to rebuild many homes on Bennett Ridge where I live. We are friends as well as fishing and hunting partners. Mr. Lage is presently rebuilding 11 homes and staying quite busy. He is working with folks who are trying to cope with their losses. As you can imagine the losses of this nature are huge and life changing. He sometimes spends seven days a week with construction issues and getting these folks back in their homes. It’s not been easy but as we get close to October 2019 he will have 5 or 6 families back in their homes. It’s been quite a balancing act to undertake. Many thanks from your homeless friends!

Perseverance on The Nush

Bill Sirvatka releases a Nushagak River king over their 4th of July reunion weekend.

This Independence Day trip had special significance to us all. You can’t look back and relive what was. You keep moving forward and know that everything is changing for the better. You know you are blessed with the outcome of living through this disaster. You try to find the goodness in this event and make the best out of a horrific scenario.

Fishing with Nushagak River Adventures Lodge last week was a break we all looked forward to and a chance to reflect on what’s really important. It’s devastating to lose your home, but it’s really just property. The people and pets are safe. Now we all get a chance to forget this chapter of our lives and share the fishing stories, meals, and memories from our trip to The Nush this summer. We needed it.