Lessons from a fiery day in February

Name: Sarah and Tom Guthrie

They say you find out who your real friends are during times of hardship. This has certainly been the case for Tom and Sarah Guthrie, of Victoria's Grampians Estate, 23km south-west of Moyston, who two years ago watched helplessly as a bushfire scorched 95% of their 1300ha sheep and vineyard property.

Ultimately, 3700 sheep were destroyed and 95% of their 3.2ha vineyard of Shiraz and Chardonnay was burnt or cooked. Also destroyed was a tourism cottage, nearly all of their 64km of fencing, a hay and machinery shed, spray unit, their daughter Pollyanna's beloved pony, and numerous other outhouses and equipment. Fortunately, the buildings within the farmyard, including the family home, a woodshed and new wine shed, were saved, as well as 5000 sheep and lambs. Everything else was left scorched in the fire's wake.

In the days that followed, friends helped install new dripper tube in the vineyard to replace what the fire had melted, enabling the vines to be watered just four days after the fire had passed, helping to resuscitate whatever plants were going to survive. Then, out of the blue, the Guthries began receiving offers of fruit and juice from wineries throughout the State and beyond. Jasper Hill, in Heathcote, was on the receiving end of similar goodwill when its vineyard was devastated by fire in 1987, as was Geelong's Bannockburn vineyard after a hailstorm destroyed most of its crop in 1997.

'It was an unbelievable gesture that makes you feel weak at the knees,' describes Tom Guthrie.

Just prior to the fire, the 2003 vintage of Grampians Estate's flagship Streeton Reserve Shiraz won the trophy for best 2003 and older Shiraz at the National Wine Show in Canberra while the 2005 vintage of the same wine won trophies for Best Regional Shiraz and Best Shiraz at the 2007 Ballarat and Murrumbateman wine shows, respectively. It was this track record that led the Guthries to graciously accept the Shiraz on offer from fellow cool climate producers throughout the State.

'Other wineries offered fruit too, but we preferred cool-climate Victorian Shiraz so it would be a similar style to ours,' explains Tom referring to the three wines they would have produced from the 2006 vintage, namely the Mafeking Shiraz, Streeton Reserve Shiraz and Rutherford Sparkling.

With February marking the two-year anniversary of the fire, Grampians Estate will be launching three wines from these donations which Tom and Sarah have opted to call their Friends Shiraz collection.

The eight Victorian wineries that donated the fruit or juice to make the Friends Shiraz, Reserve Shiraz and Sparkling Shiraz are Dalwhinnie, Shay's Flat, Cobaw Ridge, Brokenwood, Boggy Creek, Garden Gully, Dakis Vineyards and Henty Estate. The printing and design of the labels (which is under wraps until the official launch of the Friends range on 23 February, although Tom assures us they have a 'fiery theme') was also donated by Graphix Labels.

'Knowing how much effort, time and money goes into producing cool-climate
Shiraz, it was just so generous what they were offering. To have a vintage after all would mean we could maintain our continuity as a supplier and retain our
spots on restaurant lists and in bottleshops,' Tom says.

Although around 50% of the Grampians Estate vineyard has since been replanted following the fire, around 30% of the vines did shoot again most of which was Chardonnay.

'There were a few hundred kilograms of Chardonnay which we picked and fermented. I bottled a few bottles to show people what burnt rubber tastes like; the rest went down the drain!' Tom explains, ending speculation about a special release 'charred-onnay'.

He believes that part of the reason that so much of the vineyard was 'burnt or cooked' was that a significant proportion of the Shiraz (nearly 2ha) was mulched with pea straw.

'That really created some destructive heat on the vine trunks,' he says. 'We still believe in mulching and will continue to do it. There are different products to use and we're trialling them, but I think pea straw is still the best - we just need to make it non-burnable pea straw.'

The Guthries have also opted to replace 'a healthy percentage' of the pine posts that burnt in the fire with steel. Tom recalls the fire that devastated their property had been burning for several days some 17km away when the weather conditions changed dramatically and 'away it went'.

'Even with the warning, there was a sense of denial that it would burn us, let alone do the destruction it eventually caused and in such quick time,' he says.

'The fire came with a ferocity that matched the gale-force winds blowing at the time,' Tom wrote in an email three days after the fire. Sarah adds that they had seven hours' notice that the fire was 'well and truly coming our way'.

'More notice would have made a huge difference,' she admits. 'People who have not experienced a fire just have no idea. I did not give a thought to the vineyard, tourist accommodation [or] horsefloat as there was simply no time to think about these things. It was straight to the top priorities.'

And those priorities obviously included their children Pollyanna and Ford who were home during the fire, and the house.

'As far as saving the vineyard was concerned, it was being burnt at the same time as the cottage was on fire and we were protecting our home and family,' Tom says. 'We just had to make sure our family and our home were safe; that was everyone's main priority.'

While not wishing to dwell on what they may have done differently to avoid or mitigate their loss in the fire - 'we need to look forward and work with what we saved, not what we lost', says Tom - the Guthries do admit the lessons that they and others learned from the blaze will better prepare future generations for such an event. One of these lessons is to have adequate insurance.

'Crop insurance would have been handy, as well as trellising,' adds Tom. 'We at least had some replanting cover.

'There will be times such as this one when 20 firetrucks probably wouldn't have saved it so [having sufficient insurance] is a number one priority.'

The need for adequate fire-breaks was also apparent.

'We had the paddock next to the vineyard pretty bare, but as it turns out not bare enough. We are planning to establish Lucerne all around the vineyard as a permanent firebreak,' Tom explains.

Sarah says they had a fi re plan for animals, people, precious items and antiques 'and all the gear on hand ready to go - towels, buckets, goggles and so on'. 'Tom and I had both done our CFA minimum skills, which everyone should do.'

But Tom says that given their experience and the likelihood for more regular and bigger bushfires as global warming increasingly 'dries out' the bush, better plans are needed.

'We all need to be better prepared, better educated and better planned. We are making changes to better safeguard our stock, our most valuable farm asset, and summer crops like lucerne will give natural protection to our vineyard and home buildings.

'One of the real deficiencies in our plan was we didn't know who to ring to help us when we realised we were in serious trouble - it was no good ringing any of the neighbours.

'We own two firetrucks and a small unit but only had one other person helping us on the day. The answer is to have a list of six friends from out of the district who would be sort of 'on call' in case of an emergency. We would then be on their emergency list. You don't realise just how much there is to do when the pressure is on,' Tom says.

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