A massive forest fire that started early Saturday morning when lightning struck a tree in British Columbia is threatening the province's burgeoning wine industry. Wineries throughout the northern and middle Okanagan Valley have been closed down, and workers are clearing dry brush and hosing down buildings in hopes of averting disaster.
The fire has claimed more than 50 square miles to date and has destroyed 95 percent of the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park. "We've been fighting fires in BC's interior all summer. Most fires have not had an impact on the grape and wine industry, but this one is different," said Gordon Fitzpatrick, owner of Cedar Creek Estate Winery, near Kelowna in the north Okanagan Valley. "…Wineries flank the park on either side."
The local fire department closed Cedar Creek -- including its wine shop, tasting room and restaurant -- on Monday afternoon as the fire may have been only a mile or two from the vineyards. Fitzpatrick said staff members were busy on Tuesday trying to protect the winery in case the fire came any closer. "We pulled cellar workers out into the fresh air and spent the day building a fire break around our 98 acres of vineyard, clearing brush from around our homes and watering what we could."
At St. Hubertus Winery in Kelowna, flames were visible at the top of the hillside behind the winery, and "the air is really smoky," said co-owner Leo Gebert. He explained that "ground crews can do little and that the only access to the fire area is by water bomber." His brother, Andy, said on Thursday afternoon that they are packed up and ready to get out, as the fire continues to shift wildly and move at an estimated 12 to 25 miles per hour.
By Wednesday, the threat had moved toward the wineries at the south end of the park, toward Naramata, in the middle of Okanagan Valley. That area includes a vineyard owned by Mission Hill Family Estate, which is one of the province's largest wineries, and a number of smaller wineries along the Naramata Bench.
"We've narrowly avoided losing our Paradise Ranch vineyard at Naramata," said Mission Hill director of marketing Ingo Grady on Thursday. "One of our vineyard managers called this morning to say, 'Paradise is not lost after all.' Twenty-five people worked all night trying to save the 646-acre property that borders Okanagan Mountain Park." (Reports late on Thursday indicated that the fire may be immediately threatening Paradise Ranch again, but no one could be reached for comment.)
Grady explained, "Much of the terrain is very steep, so conventional fire-fighting machinery can't be brought in and doesn't work. We've been pumping water out of Lake Okanagan to fight the fire, as all our irrigation water comes from above and the irrigation pipes have been destroyed by the fire."
Some 2,500 residents of Naramata were evacuated late on Tuesday evening. "At midnight, we had volunteers knock on our door and tell us that we must be ready to leave our homes and businesses within an hour if the fire moves any closer," said Prudence Mahrer, owner of Red Rooster Winery in Naramata, who had not left yet when interviewed. "There is a ban on irrigation so that all the water and pressure can be available for fighting the fire, but that leaves us without water for our vineyards."
Mahrer expressed hope that the fire would shift direction or be contained before vineyards, wineries and homes were damaged.
The Okanagan Valley gets an average of just 11 to 12 inches of rainfall annually, making fire a particularly serious matter there. As Fitzpatrick observed, "When you're in agriculture, you have to be prepared for all sorts of emergencies. Fortunately, they are now forecasting showers for Friday."
Photo by Sarah Murdoch