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Australian Wildfires Ravage Yarra Valley

More than 200 people are estimated dead and wineries and vineyards lie in ruins in Victoria

Tyson Stelzer
Posted: February 10, 2009

Wildfires raging across Australia's southern state of Victoria have destroyed vineyards and wineries in one of the country's premium wine regions, the Yarra Valley, in what local leaders are calling Australia's worst peacetime disaster. The fires have claimed at least 181 lives and left 6,000 people homeless. Dozens more are missing and believed dead.

On Tuesday, firefighters in some areas still struggled to contain the flames, which obliterated at least two towns over the weekend and continued to burn in grasslands and forests north of Melbourne, the state capital. Fires were still being fought in 24 locations and winds were expected to pick up. In areas where the blazes are under control, investigators have begun to fan out to look for evidence of criminal activity. Some of the fires are believed to be the work of arsonists.

At least two wineries have been destroyed and many vineyards have been wiped out or badly damaged just weeks before harvest. Families remain unaccounted for and local winery and vineyard workers are feared to be among the victims.

Buildings at Tom Carson's Yarra Valley property go up in flames; Carson saved his home but lost his vineyard.
"We're just glad to be alive," said Tom Carson, winemaker and general manager of Yabby Lake, who lost his vineyard and worked all night on Saturday to save his Yarra Valley home and two young children. "The fire moved at a pace that would have put Usain Bolt to shame. We were fortunate that our sacrificial Shiraz block copped the fire front and helped to deflect it around our house and send it belting down the hill. We fought it off, and we won."

Others in the region were not so fortunate, with hundreds of homes destroyed and uncounted lives lost. Roundstone winery at Yarra Glen was razed to the ground. "We're still alive," said owner John Derwin, who, along with his wife, Lynne, also lost their house, restaurant and vineyard. "There's lots of our friends that aren't." Winery damage was also reported at Train Trak, Lance Family Vineyards and Punt Road. Domaine Chandon suffered some external damage to warehouses.

Scores of vineyards across the valley have been damaged or destroyed, including those at Sticks winery, Yarra Yering, Yering Station, Mandala and a few rows of vines at Domaine Chandon. Foster's lost 100 acres of Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Merlot plantings in two vineyards that supply fruit for the Coldstream Hills and St. Hubert's brands. "Our viticultural and winemaking staff continue to assess the impact of the fires and a full picture is not likely until the conclusion of vintage," said Nicola McConnell, general manager of brand communications for Foster's Australia.

It remains unclear whether vines will survive for future crops. Gordon Gebbie, commercial director of Yering Station, said that 20 acres of the company's vines that were burnt might be salvageable.

The fires raged across the state and in the south of the Heathcote wine region in central Victoria, the owners of Rupert's Ridge lost their house. The vineyards were scorched but are expected to recover. In Beechworth in the northeast part of the state, fires were blown away from vineyards by the prevailing winds, and no damage has been reported to date. As of Tuesday, fires continue to burn around Beechworth and across the Yarra Valley.

The full extent of damage to vineyards will not be clear until the smoke settles and areas are reopened. Police have closed off many of the affected regions with roadblocks, declaring them crime zones amid suspicion that arsonists are to blame for some fires.

The region has long been hit by bushfires, but never of this magnitude. Drought conditions coupled with a record heat wave raised the risk of fire all over the state. Strong winds on Saturday and an all-time record temperature of 119.5° F generated a firestorm so fierce that many people didn't stand a chance. The fires spread so quickly in some areas that people died in their cars while trying to flee. Others were overwhelmed while trying to protect their homes.

Tuesday, hundreds of exhausted firefighters continued to battle two dozen wildfires still burning out of control. Army reservists were deployed to the region to help dig containment lines around the fires and clear charred trees from the roads. Conditions were much cooler, but officials warned the weather could heat up again early next week.

The impact on the region and on the wine industry will take months to measure. "Victoria is fortunate that the proportion of the state's wine production that suffered direct impact from the weekend's fires is small, and a full assessment of loss will be undertaken over the next few weeks," said Joanne Butterworth-Gray, chief executive of the Victorian Wine Industry Association.

Vineyards that were not directly affected by the fires may be at risk of smoke taint, though this is not believed to be a significant threat. "We were lucky that a southerly wind meant that the smoke moved fairly quickly from the Yarra Valley," said Butterworth-Gray.

Offers of support and assistance have poured in from across the wine industry. Foster's has donated $500,000 to Victorian communities affected by the disaster. On Saturday, Rochford Wines cancelled a concert anticipated to attract 6,000 people and donated the food to residents and volunteers affected by the bushfires.

"In times of hardship, the wine industry rallies, and I know the whole of the Australian wine industry will get behind and support their Victorian peers during this very difficult period," said Stephen Strachan, chief executive of the Winemakers' Federation of Australia. Area leaders are urging people to donate to the Victorian bushfire appeal at www.redcross.org.au.

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