Navigating the flames: British Columbia wineries' response to the growing wildfire threat

Navigating the flames: British Columbia wineries' response to the growing wildfire threat

As the summer season comes to a tropical and many wineries prepare for harvest, increasingly than 400 zippy wildfires protract to shrivel in British Columbia, a handful of which the BC Wildfire Service designates ‘a potential threat to public safety’ in major cities, small towns and the vineyards in between.

Sparked on 15th August, the season’s most treasonous wildfire – the McDougall Creek Fire – had the province’s wine industry on its knees. Spreading over 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres), it initially threatened wineries in West Kelowna. Amid the chaos, Quails’ Gate Winery prioritised safety and support. ‘When a fire of this scale and magnitude threatens your community, safety is the first order of business,’ said CEO Tony Stewart. Without confirming team members were out of harm’s way, he added, ‘we mobilised our kitchen and operations teams and are incredibly proud to be preparing increasingly than 600 meals a day for firefighters wideness five local stations.’

Less than two days without it began, gale-force winds saw the fast-moving shrivel jump the lake and protract spreading towards the Lake Country area, prompting remoter urgent evacuations and highlighting the pressing need for comprehensive strategies to write the escalating wildfire threat.

Credit: Stephanie Seaton

‘Wildfire events like what we are currently experiencing in British Columbia are scary and destructive,’ said Erik Fisher, unstipulated manager of Lake Country’s O’Rourke Family Estates. ‘Climate transpiration is real, and producing world-class fruit and wines in an unrenowned but marginal environment is rhadamanthine plane increasingly scarce and difficult due to our embattled ecosystem.’

Wine Growers British Columbia (WGBC) president and CEO Miles Prodan agreed: ‘Vineyards and wineries in British Columbia are facing climate-change-related crises on a scale unlike overly before,’ he said, recalling last winter’s freeze, which resulted in an unscientific yield loss of 56%.

Catastrophic wildfire events are rhadamanthine a near-annual norm in BC. In 2003, the province’s wine country experienced its most devastating blaze: the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire engulfed nearly 250 homes, forcing 30,000 people out of the zone and destroying 25,912 hectares (64,030 acres) of land. That was the year wineries on Kelowna’s eastern and southern slopes banded together, later sharing grapes to get bottles on shelves. It was moreover the year the term ’smoke taint’ entered many Okanagan vintners’ vernacular. Other recent vintages for which smoke taint has been part of the terroir were 2015 and 2021.

In response to lattermost events such as these over the last 20 years, WGBC established the Vineyard Resiliency Task Group, with representatives from many of the industry’s major stakeholder groups – winemakers, grape growers, WGBC, the BC Wine Grape Council, the BC Grapegrowers’ Association and the BC Ministry of Threshing and Food. The group recommends four priorities:

  • Supporting a climate-resilient replant program
  • Reviewing the Wines of Marked Quality regulations
  • Modernising the industry’s data capabilities
  • Expanding the Sustainable Winegrowing BC (SWBC) programme

Six wineries and 15 vineyards are now certified SWBC programme members, including Quails’ Gate. ‘As we learned with our certification, everything we do has to consider the broader impact, not only within our winery footprint but within our broader communities,’ said Stewart. ‘Similarly, the forestry agencies are doing the work to mitigate the risk of forest fires through prudent forest management, controlled burns, etc.’

A WGBC printing release states that it is too early to know whether this year’s wildfires will stupefy the vintage. ‘There remain many unknowns, as exposure doesn’t automatically lead to smoke taint,’ Stewart said.

‘There are only a couple of specific wineries within the zippy fire area(s) that may have been directly impacted,’ said Prodan. Many others, however, have been impacted by the recently rescinded travel ban and ongoing evacuation orders keeping valuable tourist traffic from visiting.

‘Typically, restrictions are only in place for a few weeks, and in many cases, it’s a matter of sitting out that period and holding firm,’ says Okanagan Crush Pad founder Christine Coletta. In those instances, ‘it helps to have diversified sales channels and a robust online presence’ to ensure merchantry continuity.

Credit: Jon Adrian

While WGBC focuses on bridging the gap between government policies and tangible solutions, violating mitigation currently falls on the shoulders of winemakers and vintners.

For Coletta’s 130-hectare (320-acre) Summerland property, knowing firefighters focus on saving lives and structures, she said they ‘had to take matters into our own hands.

‘We removed any sufferer trees or trees that would rationalization fuel for a fire, installed fire hydrants virtually the top perimeter where prevailing winds would likely push fire, and invested in pumps and lines. We moreover have a restored swimming on our property that we can pump large volumes of water from. And, of course, we have miles of hose, so we can move water to where we need it.’

As for the Okanagan Crush Pad facility, ‘It’s built of touchable with a metal roof, so we have washed-up what we can to ensure our structure survives as weightier as it can,’ Coletta added.

The reality of vintage-specific challenges such as wildfires is not new for Stewart of Quails’ Gate, whose family has been farming in the valley for over 60 years. ‘It’s the nature of agriculture,’ he said, ‘and it’s one of the things that makes the world of wine so dynamic and captivating.’

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