Vintage Report 2020

Published on August 25, 2020

wallaby at garden gate
Wallaby looking for feed at our front door

It was obvious in spring that 2020 was going to be a very difficult vintage. The Bureau of Meteorology mapped the last 3 years as the driest on record for our area and everything was parched. Wildlife was severely stressed, with a sharp decline in small birds, insects and mammals.

drought map
January 2017 to October 2019: driest on record. (Source Bureau of Meteorology)

Our dam was down to about 10% of its capacity and we decided that we could no longer afford to irrigate the vineyard, but had to try and keep some water for wildlife, cattle and fire fighting.
Between August and December we received on average half our usual rainfall. Fire restrictions came in early (23.9.2019) and we spent a lot of time on fire preparations. During a drought dead leaves and branches accumulate faster than they can be removed, but we put as much as we could through the mulcher to make them less flammable.

dam at low level
In October we could no longer pump water as the suction pipes fell dry.
emergency pump
We rigged an emergency pump and extended the pipes by 75 meters.
dam level falling quickly
December: We hoped that our dam would not fall dry completely.

Dam levels fell rapidly and we had to disconnect the windmill and main diesel pump due to lack of water. At the same time we had to switch our fire water supply from the close-by small dam to our main dam. We rigged another diesel pump close to the water and extended the pipes to that.

On 21st October we recorded 41.6°C and gale force wind and a band of dry lightning started dozens of fires along the Great Dividing Range.

vines with bushfire smoke
Smoke from the Bruthen fire which is close but not dangerous to us.
But the smoke is getting worse and lasts for days and weeks...
... unhealthy for animals, plants and
for us, too.

During November and December we had a lot of dense smoke, and helicopters and aeroplanes going over constantly. We expected our grapes to be badly tainted by smoke and probably unsuitable for wine-making.

The fires burnt out of control.

More than 160 firefighters were battling the Marthavale-Barmouth Spur blaze in very inaccessible country. On 20th December with extreme temperatures it took a significant run overnight in a south-easterly direction and quadrupled in size to 37 000 ha, then to 48 000ha. The Omeo Highway was closed and Ensay lost power and phone services.

fire map 20-12-2019
20. December: Marthavale-Barmouth Spur blaze and the direction we expect it to take.
fire map 25-12-2019
25. December: The attempted firebreak now brings us into the direct line of the fire.
fire map 30-12-2019
30. December: The fire strikes.

From the 27th of December onwards we received emergency warnings and evacuation orders by phone message.

On the 28th of December Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp stated very clearly that:
If you're visiting East Gippsland, you need to leave the area today. If you live in East Gippsland, you need to move to safer locations. It is important that you now think very, very seriously about leaving. It is not possible to provide support and aid to all the visitors currently in the East Gippsland region, and if the Princes Highway is impacted, you may not be able to leave for some time.
There's not enough trucks to go around, so don't count on a fire truck protecting your particular house. You need to get out of there.

Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Kevin Parkyn said that Monday 30th December was likely to be a significant fire weather day in Victoria’s history, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius across much of the state, including in East Gippsland.
He warned that conditions would be made more dangerous by a wind change which would move across the state next afternoon and evening, and across the East Gippsland firegrounds shortly before midnight.
“The wind change is very problematic … because it lights up the whole flanks of fires very quickly,” Mr Parkyn said.
“It’s a very serious, life-threatening situation, make no mistake.”

A total fire ban was declared for the entire state.
So we all knew what was coming.

Like many of our neighbours we stayed to defend anyway.
We didn’t really expect our little timber house to be defendsible, but we thought it was worth a try. The winery felt reasonably safe and we had our “emergency kits” between the barrels.

We would have lost everything had we left.

bushfire smoke
Now it is coming.
vines with burning trees in the background
The trees 10 meters behind the winery
burnt trees
the same trees after the fire

On the 30th of December 2019 we recorded 43°C and in the evening the fire struck. Ember-storms ignited fires five kilometres ahead of the main fire front and dozens on our farm. The fire burnt through all of our vineyard and most of the rest.
Blowing out something like 100 000 Litres of water we were able to save the house, some sheds and the winery.
Everything else was damaged or lost.
Sarsfield was declared a disaster area.

In the vineyard there were a lot of burnt posts, all the irrigation lines had melted, the vines dropped their leaves, the grapes were cooked or burnt to a crisp.

You can find details and photos here.

burnt vine leaves