More than 2,000 campers and boaters gathered Sunday night at Sunset Bay Vacation Resort on the shores of the Great Sacandaga for a bonfire that would never come.
Every year on the Sunday before Labor Day, hundreds of Sacandaga-area residents and lakeshore businesses light bonfires at dusk. The Ring of Fire has been an end-of-season ritual since 1988.
For the past 21 years, one of the largest fires was at the marina and campground of Sunset Bay Vacation Resort. The plan was pretty much the same this year. Resort manager Rick O’Dell hired six guys to carry wood and make a pile by the water. They worked a full week before the event, building up a mound of two tractor-trailer loads of clean pine and pallets.
Then, little more than an hour before O’Dell planned to toss the match, two state Department of Environmental Conservation officers showed up.
“They said, ‘No fire today,’ ” O’Dell said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
He said the officers kept saying fires could be no larger than 3 feet by 4 feet, according to state regulations, and they were going around the lake telling everyone not to build the usual huge fires.
“I asked what the fine would be if I just lit the fire anyway,” he said. “I had people that flew in just to see the blaze. They told me it was $500 and that I’d be leaving in handcuffs if the fire was lit.”
He agreed not to light the fire, canceling the disc jockey and posting two friends by the woodpile to fend off eager campers and any lighters they might be carrying. He figured the tradition was dead. His wife cried. Then the next morning, he picked up the newspaper to see massive fires at Lanzi’s on the Lake and scores of other places.
Bob Boudreau, a 16-season resident of the resort who lives all summer in a 39-foot travel trailer with his wife and 13-year-old son, his son wouldn’t eat dinner after hearing the fire was canceled.
“Everywhere else got to have a fire,” he said. “It seemed like selective enforcement.”
DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said Tuesday the DEC fielded multiple calls from disappointed Sunset Bay campers.
“We’re not trying to end the tradition,” he said, “The DEC wants to see the Ring of Fire continue. These were just friendly reminders.”
Constantakes said DEC officers warned a number of lake residents to limit the size of their fires and not to burn treated lumber. He couldn’t say if O’Dell’s woodpile was too large or whether it contained treated wood.
“There were only two fires that didn’t get lit,” he said. “The one at Sunset Bay and another one. I’m not sure where that one was.”
O’Dell said he called all the friends he’s made on the lake in 21 years at Sunset Bay and not one of them had heard from DEC officers. The wood, too, he said, was all clear — painstakingly gathered over a full year.
“Rick hand-checks all the wood himself,” Boudreau said. “He makes sure there isn’t any painted or pressure-treated lumber.”
Two days later, O’Dell wasn’t sure why his fire was stopped while scores of others — which he says were even larger — were not. He described a depressing Labor Day scene. Cars left in the morning, drivers looking at their hands on the way out.
“They all said, ‘Sorry about the state,’ ” he said. “Not one of them had a word against me.”
Now, with the season winding down, he has another problem: The 15-foot-high berm of firewood still occupies 45 feet of lakeshore.
“I’m going to have to have it trucked to a landfill,” he said, “and the labor for carrying it up the hill … it’s going to cost $10,000.”
While the Ring of Fire will continue, according to the DEC, the tradition is apparently over for Sunset Bay; O’Dell said he’s done with it.