A fire that started in the kitchen, likely on a stove or a grill, destroyed the girls’ bunkhouse at The Zone in Gilboa Wednesday—just two days after owners were notified they were facing more than $60,000 in fines for violating COVID-19 regulations.
The fire remains under investigation by the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control.
While the COVID concerns—owner Oorah is charged with illegally operating a children’s camp—are new, safety concerns at the former Golden Acres Farm and Ranch Resort on South Gilboa Road are not.
In his June report Code Enforcement Officer Brian Caron updated Town of Gilboa Supervisor Alicia Terry and councilmen on issues he’d been having inspecting the main campus and getting needed repairs done.
And two years ago, a half-dozen fire departments were called to a fully-involved structure fire at The Boys Zone in Jefferson at the former Deer Run.
Wednesday, thick, black smoke from Wednesday’s fire could be seen miles away and it took 17 fire departments from across three counties from about 1:30pm till nearly midnight to extinguish it.
No injuries were reported and farm animals, including alpaca and horses, were safely evacuated to make room for trucks, firefighters said.
Schoharie County Public Health Director Amy Gildemeister said her office found significant electrical issues at the bunkhouse the day before the fire and an overflowing toilet on the second floor may well have contributed to the blaze.
“We’ve been trying to shut them down for weeks,” for the COVID violations, she said.
According to Dr. Gildemeister, the $60,000 in fines came after Oorah ignored a cease and desist order issued on July 29 after the Health Department determined it was running a children’s camp—illegal under COVID and not what Oorah, an Orthodox Jewish camp, claimed in its safety plan and permit.
The Girls Zone had been allowed to open as a temporary residence or hotel after the State Health Department gave its okay, Dr. Gildemeister said; by definition, that means children under 15 must be with their parent or other adult.
But when staff visited the camp after receiving complaints from neighbors—almost immediately after it opened--that there were crowds both there and out and about and that they weren’t following COVID restrictions, Dr. Gildemeister said a visit found 30 or more underage children there on their own.
It also appeared campers were using rec facilities like bumper boats—specifically not allowed under the permit--and a video posted on Instagram showed a large group of young singers, unmasked and not social distancing with their arms around each other.
“It’s a children’s camp,” Dr. Gildemeister said.
On July 29, her office issued a cease and desist order shutting down the camp but because of a holiday on the 30th and the Sabbath, Oorah was given until August 2 to leave.
They didn’t leave—and filed their own stay order, she said, which was denied by a judge.
On August 6, Health Department officials put up 80 notices of closure—signs—at the camp, but “Still they did not vacate,” Dr. Gildemeister said. “We heard many reports of activities going on over the weekend.”
By last Tuesday, the day before the fire, it did appear that many of the campers had left and others were getting ready to leave, she said.
The fines are $2,000 a day for each day Oorah remained open after it was closed and owners could also face jail time, Dr. Gildemeister said.
If any of the campers test positive for COVID back home, her department won’t necessarily be notified, she said.
“There are a lot of wild cards.”
Among them: whether the campers, most of whom are from the New York City or New Jersey areas, would even share that they’d been upstate.
Dr. Gildemeister said her office has received several reports of girls with fevers who were allowed to return to camp or sent home, but have been unable to confirm them; Oorah said there have been no positive COVID cases at either campus.
Both the Girls and Boys Zones were nearly ready to close for the season.