Oliver Fires 2015

Every place has its ‘thing’, a natural danger to inhabitants that occasionally make life a little more uncertain. Visiting grandparents and uncles in Florida, I was surprised to find a channel on the television that was dedicated entirely to hurricane warnings. Living in Montreal, massive snow storms that would cripple most cities or have them call in the army (I’m looking at you Toronto). It only meant that we got to school slower than normal. Wherever humans live, every place has something that will challenge us.

photo 2In the Okanagan, it is wildfires. It’s not a secret but they don’t usually put it in the tourist brochures. Fire is a natural way to cleanse the forest and being that the Okanagan is a dry place, fires can start easily (by lightening or human activity) and quickly get out of hand. By quickly, I mean within minutes. This past Friday, I drove back to Oliver from Penticton in a ridiculous wind storm, the likes of which I have never been on the road to witness in the Okanagan before. I’ve never had a gust of wind force the front of my car down and to the side the way a school bully would push you on the shoulder trying to start a fight. I got into town just before six and saw the smoke in Testalinda Creek. That’s also when I noticed a firetruck, lights on, heading in the other direction and heading to where I had just come from only minutes before. I turned around a saw a large plume of smoke starting up from behind Sandy Mountain. It only took a few minutes for it start and get that big.

IMG_7500-0Friday, August 14th was a scary night in Oliver. Homes in town were directly threatened from the Wilson Mountain fire as it spread over Sandy Mountain towards houses that backed against it. I spent the evening packing things, bringing boxes and cat carriers to friends who lived closer to the danger zone than I did. I did not think that we were going to be evacuated but I also knew that I didn’t want to be unprepared. We stayed glued to Twitter, Facebook, and an online radio scanner that broadcast the radios from the Oliver Fire Department. (Forget cute cats and food, social media’s greatest benefit is as a communication link in times of disasters.) Even with social media, our best source of information was standing in our front yard where we could see the inferno itself. From our back deck, the Testalinda fire appeared to double in size in hours.

Just after midnight, the fire on Sandy appeared less fierce. The winds had calmed down and the smoke lessened. Only by daylight the next morning was it a little more clear what we had been seeing. Sandy mountain is only sparsely covered in vegetation. Rock and sand do not burn and as most of the faces are covered more with rock than with trees, there was soon no fuel left to burn.

Road 13 Winery was close to the action.
Road 13 Winery was close to the action.

The Testalinda fire was another story. Higher elevation means more trees and the winds were pushing the fire south and downhill towards the southern part of the Golden Mile. Road 13 winery was almost directly below the fire. Owner Mick Luckhurst gathered his troops to do battle to save the winery. They filled any empty tanks with water and used winery pumps to drench the hillsides. They flooded the roofs of the buildings and moved anything flammable down the hills away from the winery. Then they got help. A crew from Mission Hill was in the area and showed up to help out in any way that they could. Road 13 thanked them in a heartfelt post on Facebook a day later:

From Mick Luckhurst… I want to thank Mission Hill Family Estate Winery for volunteering their time and equipment in helping us suppress the fire threatening our buildings and farm. Thank you to James Hopper, Ray Gill, and David Millar for showing up with water and hoses and asking “Where do you want us?”. A classy company as represented by their people.

Posted by Road 13 Vineyards on Sunday, August 16, 2015

Folks, that’s the wine industry for you. It’s all about the community.

Road 13 and all of the wineries on the Golden Mile are still open for business as usual. The fire danger is still present as the fire grows but the sections near Road 13 and Rustico are burned out as of today. Maverick, Castoro, and the many vineyards and orchards to the south were seeing the flames directly behind their properties today. With calm winds and cooler temperatures, the speed of the fire’s advance has seems to have slowed.

photo 4 (3)With clearer daytime weather, air support is now a big part of the firefighting action. Except that today at a news conference, Premier Christy Clarke noted that two helicopters were grounded because a drone had been spotted over the Testalinda fire. SOME DORK HELD UP FIREFIGHTING SO THAT HE COULD GET HIS OWN AERIAL PHOTOS OF THE WILDFIRE. The fire might go on for longer and cause more destruction now because of this person’s selfish and useless use of a “technology”. A professional operator would know not to use it over an active fire so this person is obviously not trained or aware enough to know better. Let’s hope this person can be brought to justice.

photo 2 (3)The Premier payed a brief visit to thank the firefighters from the Oliver Fire Department who successfully worked around the clock to keep the town safe. Fire Chief Dan Skaros, with whom I worked briefly while helping bottle at Road 13 years ago, lead the team brilliantly.

So what does this mean for wine and wine touring?

At this point, nothing. It’s business as usual at all of the wineries in the Oliver / Osoyoos region. Highway closures on may occur at any time so it’s worth checking DriveBC for any developments. As for smoke damage, I’m told that a couple days’ worth of smoke in the valley is certainly not going to taint the grapes in any way. There have certainly been more smoky summers here before (2009 being the most recent bad year for smoke). The sunshine and heat continue in this week’s forecast so the possibility of fires in non-burned areas continues with it.

Facing west on Black Hills Road.
Facing west on Black Hills Road.

The landscape will be the thing that most wine tourists will notice first. The light brown and dark green tones that were our hills are now black and will remain so for a while. The scorched areas of the Okanagan Mountain Park fire in 2003 were still evident in 2009 so this will likely be our new normal here for a while. Unfortunately pour Testalinda Creek, the site of a masive debris flow in 2010, may become even more problematic since slope stability could be compromised. Burned out trees don’t absorb any water or hold the ground together anymore. The Vaseux Lake fire in 2003 is cited in a paper by Dr. Dwayne D. Tannant from UBC as contributing factor for a debris flow at Vaseux Creek only one year later. Let’s hope Testalinda Creek can stay calm for a while.

Until then, I shall be doing what everyone else does at this time of year: following the promising 2015 vintage.

Cheers from wine country.


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