Before Grand Bear Resort was approved in 2004, Utica firefighters warned of safety risks: ‘We could tell this was coming’

Former fire chief encourages Grand Bear owners to help plan for if there’s ever another fire

The foundations of three sets of cabins, dead trees, and burnt vehicles are all that remains after a major fire swept through the Grand Bear Resort and set fire to 28 cabins on Tuesday, May 31, 2022 in Utica.

They saw it coming — 18 years ago.

Dave Edgcomb and Tom Brown didn’t know when or how a fire would start at Grand Bear Resort in Utica, but they knew putting one out could be a problem. They warned everyone who would listen to take precautions before the resort was built.

Brown is a retired firefighter and past member of the Utica Planning Commission. In April 2004, he was among the first to glimpse the plat for vacation homes at what was then Grand Bear Lodge. He saw trouble.

News archives show Brown questioned then whether the roads were big enough to accommodate fire engines — the plat showed roads as narrow as 23 feet — and he opposed the overall design for having just one way in from Route 178.

“I can’t in good conscience vote for something when there’s only one point of entrance,” Brown said in 2004.

Nevertheless, the Planning Commission approved the plat 5-1, with Brown voting no. The resort was built the following summer.

On Monday, his fears were fulfilled: 28 vacation units (within seven cabin buildings) at Grand Bear were destroyed by a fast-moving fire. Firefighters from 57 companies used 40 tankers to haul in at least 5 million gallons of water, and maybe closer to 10 million, according to a rough estimate from Assistant Utica Fire Chief Drew Partain.

Though strong winds (30 to 40 mph) accelerated the fire, Brown said some of the difficulties encountered Monday, such as the availability of water, could have been avoided.

“The width of the roads in general and the cul-de-sacs would make it difficult to turn around any fire apparatus,” Brown said Tuesday. “And it was a long way to pump from Utica’s water tower. I thought they needed a tower of their own.”

Edgcomb thought so, too. Edgcomb was Utica fire chief when Grand Bear was drawn up and he not only suggested a water tower on resort property but also proposed an additional entrance on Route 71 “so there’d be two ways in and out.”

“And, of course, that fell on deaf ears,” Edgcomb said. “It’s sad. We could tell this was coming.”

There was supposed to have been an alternate source of water, too.

Grand Bear initially planned not only an indoor water park, which was completed, but also an outdoor water park that was shelved. Brown recalled Grand Bear argued if firefighters ever needed water, they would be able to draw it from a large outdoor swimming pool.

“That pool never got put in,” Brown said.

Both Brown and Edgcomb praised firefighters who responded Monday and limited the damage, which could have been much worse.

Edgcomb said the vacation homes were too close together to begin with, “and when conditions are dry, it’s a tinder box and it’ll just go.”

“They could very easily have lost the whole shooting match,” he said.

Edgcomb said it isn’t too late for Grand Bear’s owners (the Sonnenschein Groupe acquired Grand Bear in 2019) to meet with village officials and plan for if there’s ever another fire.

“It’s much easier to plan a disaster around a table than when you’re knee-deep in it,” Edgcomb said.

Utica Mayor David Stewart deferred comment, pointing out he was not then a member of Utica government in any capacity and is presently unfamiliar with the issues once brought into question.

Matthew Kosch, vice president of the Sonnenschein Groupe, said he was more than willing to meet with the village to discuss fire prevention.

“Safety should be everybody’s top priority,” Kosch said. “We can’t change what happened in the past, but we absolutely would sit down with the village to come up with a plan moving forward. I think it would be in everybody’s interest to be on the same page.”

Utica Fire Chief Ben Brown took it a step further and said any such discussion also should include the homeowners associations, ensuring input from the people most at risk, as well as the Utica Fire Protection District, which is separate from the village government.

Joe Hook, one of the partners who established Grand Bear Lodge, said he didn’t recall any past issue with access for emergency vehicles at the resort. Monday’s fire drew a massive contingent of emergency vehicles, he said, “and I’m not sure any development is designed to accommodate that much equipment.”

“That being said, we submitted plans for the entire development prepared by a third-party professional engineer, reviewed and recommended to be approved by the city engineer, approved by Utica and had inspections by the city engineer,” Hook said. “I’m not sure their concerns of access played into the eventual loss of yesterday’s fire.”