Grand Bear villas to be rebuilt (hopefully) by year’s end

One year after epic blaze, fire safety is a priority

An aerial view of the site where a major fire broke out one-year later at Grand Bear Resort at Starved Rock on Friday, May 28, 2023 . Foundations have been poured and crews are beginning to rebuild after the fire.

Don Aleksy had looked over the insurance coverage at the Grand Bear vacation villas in Utica and a quick consensus was reached within the homeowners association: They needed a better policy.

That happened in January of 2022. Four months later, Aleksy would be glad they reevaluated their coverage.

On Memorial Day of last year, gusts up to 40 mph threw burning embers from a charcoal grill onto one of the vacation homes at Grand Bear Resort at Starved Rock. The resulting fire quickly spread. Seven buildings, a total of 28 vacation units, would erupt into such a blaze that 57 fire companies would be summoned.

“I’m thankful we adjusted the coverage,” said Aleksy, president of the (phase 2) homeowners association. “At this point, everything is covered.”

“All the buildings were 72,000 square feet, so it’s quite a big project. We’re shooting for the end of the year.”

—  Don Alesky, president of the (phase 2) homeowners association

It will months before the villas are rebuilt. Owners demolished the existing structures and then made improvements to the foundations. Aleksy said they retained public adjusters to intervene with the insurers, and, “The insurance process took a lot longer than we thought.”

Aleksy estimated the rebuilding project is about 20% complete.

“All the buildings were 72,000 square feet, so it’s quite a big project,” he said. “We’re shooting for the end of the year.”

And the new buildings will be constructed to better withstand fire. While the fire was a personal loss for the homeowners – there were, thankfully, no injuries – the incident also presented challenges for Utica and other first responders.

The compound was built without fire hydrants and an outdoor swimming pool was never constructed, leaving firefighters without a reliable supply of water. The Memorial Day fire required at least 5 million gallons that had to be trucked in.

The disaster the quickly exceeded the resources of the Utica Fire Protection District and drew the area’s largest mass response since the Westclox fire in 2012. Hoping to avert another such disaster, Utica Fire Chief Ben Brown met with the homeowners association to discuss future fire-prevention and liked what he heard.

The villa owners agreed to rebuild using more fire-resistant materials and to adjust the site plan to alter the one-way-in/one-way-out configuration that had forced emergency vehicles to enter through a nearby field. Fire extinguishers have been placed at scattered locations and villa owners have agreed to limit the grill usage.

“The homeowners’ association has been super-receptive to us and they’re trying to make improvements in fire safety,” Brown said.

And while he can’t rule out the possibility of another fire, Brown noted there were unique circumstances working against the firefighters last year – a problematic combination of dry conditions and wind.

“Under regular circumstances, we would not have had that problem,” Brown said. “You may have lost one building but not the seven that were lost.”

As for rebuilding, Aleksy said it has been a challenge but there was no real alternative.

“When this is all said and done, I think the value of the units will be far more than they were.”