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Word from the Fire Front

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 12, 2009 11:25am ET

In the past week, devastating fires have taken lives in Yarra Valley and central Victoria. Known to most of us as idyllic wine regions, these parts of Australia are not unfamiliar with bushfires. Australian eucalyptus trees burn hot and fast, much faster than the pines and firs in our western forests that go ablaze virtually every summer. These trees explode, and the fires, driven by high winds in unthinkable heat, are killers.

The fires of the past week have cut a wide swath through Victoria, bringing to mind for many Australians the horrors of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, which killed 75 people in South Eastern Australia. By all accounts, this is worse.

“The human tragedy has been horrific and unfathomable across the state,” wrote Gavin Speight, director of Old Bridge Cellars, which imports some of the top wines from Oz. He shared some e-mails he received from several wine producers in Victoria. Their reports are harrowing, but they give a glimpse into the ravages of nature, not to mention the resiliency of the indomitable Aussie spirit.

The fires have burned some vineyards and wiped out entire towns in the Victoria, the second largest wine producing state (after South Australia) but the wineries are keeping their wineries operating. They know they have to keep people employed and wine dollars flowing for their own sakes, and to rebuild the area. Besides, the grapes are getting ripe, and that’s their living for the whole year.

In his e-mail, Phil Sexton of Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander in Yarra Valley was terse. “Been up all night dealing with pretty intense fires all round us," he rote. "Few houses lost along Briarty and Hill Roads. Damage to Sexton vineyard minimal; blocks 1+2 (Chardonnay) were burned, but the vines will survive. Thankfully, everyone is fine. Sadly, some neighbors and a couple of staff have lost houses; under the circumstances, we are the lucky ones.”

Although production will be down, Sexton added that “perversely, there is some very good Pinot and Chardonnay that we are racing to get in.”

“There was a fire on the corner where Giant Steps and YY intersect,” wrote Tim Hampton of Yarra Yering, also in Yarra Valley, “fortunately for us saved by a wind change, not so lucky for one man who lost his house. It’s been a trying week but I think the worst is over.”

“The wind changed direction 180 degrees on Saturday and the fire front began to head away from us back up into the ranges, luckily (for us),” wrote Nick Coulthard of Mount Mary, also in Yarra Valley. “Yering Station had the fire come up to its car park so they were lucky the fire brigade were there at the ready.”

Up in central Victoria, Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill in Heathcote felt like he had dodged a bullet. “We are safe, as are Emily's Paddock and Georgia’s Paddock. The Occam’s Razor vineyard was under threat with airborne ember spotting ahead of the front, which was controlled; no damage.”

Laughton reported “horrendous winds, ultra-low humidity, 46 bloody degrees Celsius (115° F) and fires all around the state.” The wind change actually turned the fire toward the town of Heathcote and us—scary for a while."

“We all spent the late evening in the Occam’s Razor vineyard with our own Jasper Hill fire truck, then adjourned to Georgia’s Paddock after the risk had subsided. Like others around the state, ‘our’ fire is still burning, but with more benign 25 degree [Celsius] weather predicted for the rest of the week, ours should be tamed within 24 hours.”

Assessing the situation, Laughton added, “Smoke damage to fruit is possible if it hangs in the vineyard for many days, but thankfully it is now subsiding. We had about 12 hours of burning eyes and nostrils with sleep almost impossible. I have been to Death Valley in California twice, but this day was far worse than the heat encountered there.

“Our unirrigated, biodynamic vineyards are holding up very well. Our Shiraz is nearly through veraison and all in all, still very positive for a very good vintage with a later start than the past couple.”

See what I mean? Indomitable.

Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  February 14, 2009 9:39am ET
WOW - scary stuff! Nature can be so cruel and capricious. So, maybe we will see a hint of smoke in our tastes of the 09 crop? Smoke is one thing, what about soot and water/erosion run-off!
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  February 17, 2009 12:01pm ET
Harvey: anymore updates on this situation?Life changes so fast. One day I'm reading about an update on the heat affecting the vintage, a few days later lives and homes are lost. Terrible tragedy.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 17, 2009 1:36pm ET
The fires have subsided or are largely under control. The most horrible effect was the loss of life and homes. The wine industry came through with minimal permanent damage, except for a few vineyards and wineries that got burned. Official estimates are that about 3 percent of Yarra Valley vineyards were burned and will not produce this year. Elsewhere in Victoria vineyard damage was spottier. From a wine standpoint, it could have been much worse.

The big unknown at this time is whether smoke taint will be a problem. Those on the ground say no, the winds carried the smoke away rapidly.

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