Blue Poles Vineyard
A changed landscape …
But not a changed community, post the dramatic fires that ripped through a portion of the National Park around the townships of Prevelly and Kilcarnup on 23 November 2011. It is a terrible loss to lose ones homes and belongings and to dozens of families this is what happened to them during the 2 days in which a planned prescription burn went out of control and destroyed much of what was in front of it. To have the loss is bad enough, to know that the fire was started by a government authority makes it very difficult to come to terms with, and this is the current state of the region we live in.
The township of Prevelly under a pall of smoke and flames – Nov 2011
I would like to take a step back here and provide some platform for you to get a grasp of how and why this tragedy occurred and the relationship this area has with its native bush.
The “region” of Margaret River is actually a 100km x 25km long strip of coast between two capes, Cape Naturaliste to the north, and Cape Leeuwin to the south. The major towns are Busselton which sits within Geographe Bay (as does its near neighbor Dunsborough), Margaret River which is approximately 9km in land from the coast and on the river itself, and Augusta which lies at the western corner of Flinders Bay, and the Blackwood River mouth. The beauty of the region is that there are little to no major towns on the rugged western coast of this strip, with the small town sites being Yallingup, Gracetown, Prevelly and give or take Hamelin Bay and Smiths Beach which are caravan parks by the shore. These small towns are accessible through the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park, or forested reserves and private land – there has been no significant build up along the coast and this has been to the beauty and magnificence of the region.
There is an arterial route known as Caves Road and it runs from north to south through the whole region about 3km off the coastline, and provides the linkage between the many wineries and beach towns. It is a great drive and one of the most picturesque in Western Australia if not the country as a whole. All roads in the area go past vistas of cows and sheep grazing, native bush, farmed trees, vineyards, and small contained towns – it is not mono-cultured in any way and that makes the region that little bit special in comparison to many wine regions of the world.
So we have a natural setting with a high usage through these forest and bush reserves by both tourists and locals. This makes the element of bush fire risk extremely high in the eyes of the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), who control the National Parks and reserves within the region, and they want to minimize the chance of major catastrophe through the reduction of “load” within the forests under their control. “Load” is best described as the weight of grasses and sedges that have built up under the major tree canopy, once this “load” is in excess of certain tonnage / hectare then it is extremely dangerous during a bush fire as the capacity for the fire to burn out of control is extremely high. On private properties “load” is often controlled by having stock graze through the areas of bush land, but this is forbidden within National Park and A Class reserves, so the DEC are limited to burning this load back to a “controllable” volume. And here is the kicker, they are required to complete these burn-offs post winter, as burning in autumn provides the bush land with the opportunity to grow much more vigorously thus magnifying the problem, not reducing it.
This year’s prescribed burn-offs in the Margaret River region have been ongoing for the past 6 weeks. We have had a wet and cool start to our “summer” season and this delayed many of the fires to be lit, and it also pushed out when important burn-offs such as the one around Prevelly could be started. The major burn at Prevelly in the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park was completed (to my understanding), during the week 14 – 19 November 2011, but on the Monday 21 November the DEC staff went into the burned area and restarted many unburned areas in a process called “mopping up”. It was these restarted fires that apparently initiated the major fires that burned through the towns of Prevelly and Kilcarnup and caused the losses – and the issue was that the fires were restarted with the knowledge of a very hot and windy change due by the following day and Wednesday.
Fire approaching Prevelly – Nov 2011
Now please note that the fires were predominantly contained between Caves Rd and the coast (see picture of the burnt area below, and note that our vineyard is just north of Rosa Brook marked on the diagram), but there was a point in time when they were very fearful that with a forecast westerly wind the fire could head due west and burn out Margaret River itself. Fortunately this did not eventuate, and many of our friends and contacts who were at risk managed to look after themselves and their property.
Location of the Ellenbrook fire in relationship to the Margaret River region – Nov 2011
This was a catastrophe no doubt and there will be a lot of finger pointing and angst during the process of laying “blame” and this is a given. But, how do we get around this situation moving forward? As indicated we can not burn the bush lands in autumn as they too could still lose control with a very tinder dry forest, and the re-growth would be greater with this strategy, we can not run stock in National Parks, we can not not prescribe burn without multiplying the risk of the fires being 10x larger than this event and possibly destroying 100’s if not 1000’s of homes – so we are cornered as we move forward with the same risks as faced us the week before the tragedy, as the week after.
My family and I love living in Margaret River. I travel a lot throughout the world, and I have yet to see any place better to have a vineyard or raise a family – it is a great place to live. But, there is the risk of bush fire disaster as there is throughout much of Australia – you have to accept that as part and parcel of being an Australian. To be honest I feel quite sorry for the DEC staff (and the fellow fire fighters from FESA), who are obliged to complete tasks for the greater good, but risk it all in that process. Many of the DEC staff left other prescribed burns to fight the Ellenbrook fire, and those burns went out of control as well – some of those guys may have worked without much rest or sleep for the past 2 weeks. They will face the uneducated wrath of the mob if it is not clearly spelled out that they are doing this work for US – if they had a choice I bet they would just want to wish it away, but that can not be done.
We are all extremely grateful that no lives were lost. We are happy for our friends that kept safe and managed to preserve their houses and sheds, and we are very sad for those that lost their house, possessions, stock etc. This event for its entire calamity will make the community stronger and more resilient, and hopefully more understanding to the environment in which we live.
All seems a bit superfluous to discuss our vines, but this is the source of the fruit that becomes our wine. First up the smoke from the Ellenbrook fire will not we believe affect the quality or taste of the grapes in the region – unlike more northern or warmer settings in Australia, we have only just finished our flowering so the grapes are very small (pea sized), and in loose bunches. No ash can nestle in the vines, and no smoke can impart flavour – so from a perspective of wine risk, we think there is none from this event.
The presence of mildews has been the bane of the season to date, with downy mildew spread far and wide throughout the region. Chemicals are in short supply and many operators are spraying on a continuous cycle as the risk factors do not seem to be abating in this cooler and wetter end to spring. We have minor occurrences of Powdery and Downy mildews and sprays go out for them, but I am not panicking as it is still controllable – if it does “bloom” then we are behind the 8-ball but that is the vigneron’s life.
The December monthly report will be the one that tells the story and gives us an idea of the potentiality of the season. So keep an eye out for this report!
A cool start continues...
It all happens after the Busselton Royal Agriculture Show at the end of October – you attend it on a lovely day with your shorts and short sleeved shirt, and you come home with a red nose and lobster arms. Summer has begun. But not this year – the weather has kept cool and a touch wet and windy with temperatures similar to October, and a touch more rainfall – with this November being quite a cool one in comparison to many of the previous years.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
November 2011: Avg Maximum Temp 22.9oC (Daily Max recorded 33.1oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 11.2oC (Daily Min recorded 5.5oC)
The maximum temperature ranges are significantly lower than last year, but minimums are roughly the same. There was the influence of late season weather fronts coming up from the Indian Ocean keeping a lid on maximum temperatures, but the cloud cover did keep the minimums up. Rainfall in November was higher than average, and much higher than last year.
November 2010: Avg Maximum Temp 25.1oC (Daily Max recorded 36.2oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 11.3oC (Daily Min recorded 5.3oC)
Drying, Drying brown …
Unlike last month where everything is verdant and growing, December is the month where all the paddocks of the surrounding countryside brown off as the heat and the lack of rainfall start to bite on the grasses. The vineyard will push on of course for another month or so before it settles down and starts concentrating on getting the fruit through to maximum ripeness. Lots to do as always (Christmas is located within the month I hear), and I hope to get down to the beach for a swim during the hotter days.
And before I forget ….. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone and thank you so much for supporting our little boutique winery in Margaret River – it is very much appreciated.
As always if you have any queries about what’s been written or about wine in general, do not hesitate to contact us either by email or www.twitter.com/bluepoles and we’ll do our very best to answer any question.
Blue Poles Vineyard