The Press Democrat remembers the 40 lives lost in the North Bay fires. Click here for more of the stories.

Daniel Southard couldn’t claim discovery of the house at 2620 Bennett Ridge Road. His future wife, Candace, lived there when they met. But he took to it like it was his long-lost home.

“He loved the place, loved being out in nature,” said his son, Derek Southard, 30. “He talked about it all the time. It was beautiful. There was a bunch of deer and turkeys. You walk out your door and into Annadel State Park.”

Southard, 71, reveled in physical activity. He loved the ocean, took his son mountain biking in Annadel and found happiness hiking to Gunsight Rock on Hood Mountain. From the age of 14 until he was 65, Derek estimated, his father went to the gym five days a week. A 2009 story in The Press Democrat headlined “Aging, redefined” featured a photo of Southard on a weight machine, looking cut and sporting a fireman’s mustache.

Born in Seattle, he graduated from Crescenta Valley High School in California and earned a degree in sociology from Azusa Pacific University. He eventually bought Gold’s Gym in Santa Rosa along with a partner. It was just one turn in a life that also included stints as a special-education teacher, a personal trainer, and a strength and conditioning coach for the Montgomery High School football team.

Among the hardships he faced, the most tragic came in 1989, when Candace Southard died of complications related to multiple sclerosis. Derek was 2 years old at the time. Daniel threw himself into parenting and never remarried.

Decades later, when he turned 65, Southard seriously injured his back. He underwent two spinal fusions and was prohibited by doctors from stepping foot in the gym for at least a year.

“That hurt him, too, because he derived his identity from being an athlete,” his son said. “When he lost that, he lost a lot of himself.”

But the setback also made evident his most outstanding trait: perseverance. It pained Dan to move, but he returned to the gym as soon as doctors gave him clearance, and was soon pumping iron every other day, Derek Southard said.

Derek and his girlfriend, Anna Paseka, also lived at the home on Bennett Ridge Road, but they were in Monterey for a wedding when the fires broke out. All but 30 of the 160 houses in the neighborhood burned down. Southard was the lone fatality.

Derek guesses that his father, who often had trouble sleeping, took a sedative that night. Southard was a little hard of hearing, too, and his house was among the farthest up the hill, so he may not have heard neighbors’ warnings.

He died in his second-story bedroom. Sonoma County Sheriff’s investigators identified his body based on surgical scars and other details.

The family dog, Sadie, perished that night as well.

When asked about his father’s greatest accomplishment, Derek said it might have been the championship rings he earned at Montgomery. But Paseka said that fatherhood gave Southard his greatest contentment. That pride swelled in June when Derek completed a degree in chemical engineering at UC Davis.

“He was my best friend,” Derek said.