2015 Wildfires in Oliver – A Recap

I usually don’t get to post that much over the summer since traditionally it is a busy time of year here in wine country. The high season was generally pretty good and wineries that I got to talk to as the summer progressed were pretty optimistic about this vintage. They still are that way as the harvesting has been going on in bits and pieces for about a month at this point and is probably one of the earliest that I’ve ever heard of a grape harvest in the modern era of B.C. wine.

Regardless of how busy everything gets, it was still my intention to keep the posts going as regularly as possible. I even had a few of them nearly completed. There’s one that was hoping to have out earlier in the summer about two great new books about the Okanagan that were released this past spring.

And then August happened. I came home on August 14th to see this outside of my bedroom window. IMG_1045

About an hour later, the whole ridge that was visible from my house had burned and continued to do so for the next couple of days. Strong winds made the fire spread extremely quickly and wineries along the Golden Mile (starting at Road 13 Winery and heading south) had to figure out how to defend themselves. They did and with the help of the Oliver Fire Department, no wineries or structures were lost in that initial wildfire.

The Oliver Fire Department had more than just one fire to deal with that evening. The Wilson Mountain Fire just north of the town itself had been sparked and quickly threatened the houses that backed onto Oliver Mountain. Friends’ houses in that neighborhood were evacuated and I rushed around bringing extra boxes, cat carriers, and anything that might be needed along with making our own preparations to leave just in case. To give you an idea of just how fast that fire started, I had just driven by from Penticton at 5:45 , checked my mail at the post office, and then saw the first fire truck screaming by heading north. Only then did I see the small smoke plume coming from over the mountain. In an hour, the whole mountain would be lit up.

Then the winds changed and started blowing from the south. This stopped the wildfire’s spread towards Richter Pass. But suddenly the south Okanagan (and much of southern BC) was engulfed in smoke from the fires in Washington State. The smoke hung low like valley cloud does in the dark Okanagan winters. The worst part was that we all knew the Testalinden fire was still burning, but we couldn’t see it and the deafening silence of grounded helicopters made for a long end of August.

The winds calmed and we were able to at least see where the fire had spread. It had gone north from Testalinden Creek and spread to Hester, Tinhorn, and eventually Reed Creek in the north. Calmer winds and bizarrely cooler temperatures for that time of year meant that the forestry crews could really get to work. I counted at least nine helicopters at the Oliver Airport at one point. They were taking off and landing constantly. It was loud but necessary.

By September 9th, the forestry crews had decided that conditions were good for controlled back-burns. This was the result of the first one just behind Tinhorn Creek Winery:

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It was started by helicopters dropping little ping-pong ball-sized spheres of accelarant along with forestry firefighters with torches that burned up the ground cover. Fast. This made everything look a lot worse and quite quickly. But it was all for a good reason as the next morning there was noticeably less smoke coming from the mountain for the first time since the fire had started. Taking the dried grass ground cover removed the fuel from the fire before it got there and, reaching the burned out sections, the main fire had nothing left to burn. It was truly amazing to watch the forestry firefighters and helicopters at work. The next day, they burned up another section to the north closer to Fairview Cellars. Then suddenly one morning…

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…there were more clouds than smoke for the first time in at least a month. It was quite a welcome sight to see.

I tried to find a “before and after” photo and came up with these from the mouth of the now infamous Testalinden Creek, site of the landslide from 2010.

IMG_1039The top left was taken on the day of the slide in June 2010. The water is still running fast. The bottom left shot is after one year had past in June of 2011. Even after a wet spring, the brown sage-covered hills contrast with the irrigated farmland that begins on the slope. The photo on the right was taken Sept 15th, 2015, the dark green and brown hillside is now turned to matte black. Most of the mountain is that color now. This is above Hester Creek. The Hester Creek Villas are the red roof buildings on the bottom right:

IMG_1040Tinhorn Creek Winery got close to the action as well:

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Road 13 Vineyards was in the thick of it on the very first night of the fire on August 14th.  IMG_1042The red marks on the hillside on the top right of the photo are strips of fire retardant that they managed to lay down to stop it from spreading north.

The Oliver Fire Department had begun a fundraising campaign to help out with the victims of the Rock Creek wildfire. We were extremely lucky here with our wildfire situation but Rock Creek was not so lucky and a lot of people north of that town lost their homes. The OFD’s fundraising is now focused on purchasing a wildland firefighting unit (similar to this one) for the Rock Creek / Midway fire department. The OFD has two units and found them both to be “invaluable” in the fire fight on August 14th and in the days after that. They can easily be mounted onto a pickup truck. The Rock Creek fire department apparently does not have one of these units so the OFD is now trying to help purchase one for them. They will be selling t-shirts to raise money. This is the artwork:

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Click on the photo above to go to their facebook page for more information or search facebook for “OFD T-shirt Fund Raiser 2015”.

Thank you all for your concerns and thoughts to us in wine country this summer, through tweets, messages, and posts. It was a wild one for sure. The hills may look a little different next time you are in town but we’re all still here working hard in the wine industry among others. Cheers to you from wine country.

~Luke