Half-Million Dollar Loss In Talbot County Deer Camp Fire

With the smoke settled, this group of close-knit hunters are starting to rebuild.

Ronnie Garrison | April 1, 2019

Hunting camps are special when deer season rolls around. Friendships are renewed, new members are introduced to traditions, and tales are repeated. However, some camps are much more. They are year-round retreats from the hectic world where family, friends and members gather to continue a way of life that is special to so many.

One such camp is the Deer Trail Sportsman Camp, nicknamed Redneck Rivera, in Talbot County about 20 miles from Columbus. A group of family members and friends started it in 1974 with a small plot of land and a campsite. Over the years they have acquired more land and brought in new folks. The camp grew to a collection of about 30 full-time campers that varied from nice fifth-wheel trailers to converted school buses, all with power and water.

Roofs were built over the campers, and decks and porches were added over the years through the hard labor of members. They had all the comforts of home and used it year-round, sharing meals, watching football games and enjoying the outdoors. Kids grew up there hunting, riding 4-wheelers, playing games and learning about the natural world. One member told of spending 37 weekends at the camp in a recent year.

The last weekend of the 2018-19 deer season started like any other. Members filtered in after work and were ready for a wonderful weekend. But at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 12, a fire of undetermined origin, probably electrical, started. It consumed most of the camp.

It spread so fast that some of the members barely escaped with their lives, including the 7-year-old daughter of one member. The only thing that saved them was a guardian angel that woke one member just in time to wake everyone and get them clear.

Lost in the fire were nine campers with 11 structures built over the years by hard work of members, including permanent camper roofs and eating areas. Three trucks, three 4-wheelers and three UTVs were also destroyed, along with clothes, TVs, guns, hunting gear, children’s toys, outdoor play sets and more. Very little of it was covered by insurance.

The local volunteer fire department responded quickly and saved some campers, and nearby residents also helped. One member lost her ring in the fire, but a local resident found it, had it cleaned up and returned it. That shows the kinds of people you make friends with in a group like this one.

I met with about a dozen members to talk about their experience. Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix, a member of the club, provided a place for us to talk. I was surprised when the door was opened for me and Scott Stonica introduced himself. I told him his name was familiar, and he told me I taught him in the seventh grade!

When introduced to the group, I realized I knew most of them and their families. Many were related to members of the bass clubs I fish with. We talked for long time, and each one had a personal story to relate.

In an emotion-filled discussion, they shared memories from camp. Those memories included first deer and turkey kills, watching each other’s families grow, children having fun and learning, and innumerable other great experiences and times spent there. The combined shared experiences is what made them family.

The most moving part of the discussion was of a long-term member who died at the camp as few years ago when he was way too young. Kenny Hattaway enjoyed cooking breakfast for the group while listening to a Jeff Foxworthy tape, the same one over and over.

Kenny and his dad, Kenneth, fished with me for years back in the 1970s, and his uncle still fishes with our club. This gave me a very personal connection to this camp.

A memorial to him, a plastic cross and a Georgia Tech emblem in a small flower garden, was just about all that survived the fire. Although the plants and sawdust in the garden burned, the cross and emblem did not melt.

“The night of the fire, Jesus was with me,” said Rusty Stonica.

He woke just in time to warn the others and got everyone to safety, including the 7-year-old daughter of one camper. There was a definite feeling that Kenny’s spirit was what woke Rusty just in time to save everyone. That kind of faith is also a hallmark of the camp and the kind of values instilled by groups like this.

Many still have nightmares about the fire, but they are determined to rebuild the camp and continue their way of life there. One member’s son was most worried that they would not be able to continue to go there, but they are determined to continue.

Headed up by member Matt Stonica, who has a construction company, they have started clean-up work in preparation to rebuild. Although they lost at least half a million dollars in things, they all survived and for that they are most thankful. They can continue and replace the things that were lost.

Friends established a Go-Fund Me page to help them achieve their goals. If you’d like to contribute, visit it at

The folks in this camp are good people.  Members promise to tithe 10 percent of the donations to a local church and also donate to the local volunteer fire department and other groups that helped them out in their time of need.

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