Blog: Bushfire aftermath hits home in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills

By Samuel Squire

In late December last year, at the same time that severe bushfires had been raging uncontrolled for a month in parts of New South Wales, a bushfire was sparked at Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills wine region.

Before it was eventually put out by the tireless efforts of local fire services, and with the help of some much-needed rainfall, the fire burnt over 25,000 hectares of land including some of the region’s premium vineyards and wineries.

Among those affected were Tilbrook Estate and Barrister’s Block Premium Wines. Upon hearing of their losses, and in a sense of community, I arranged to travel to their sites, talk with them and tell their stories.

Tilbrook Estate

Arriving ready for the day ahead, and only a few weeks after the Cudlee Creek bushfire, I saw greenery and life. Yet the scars on the land were evident.

The grass had returned, covering the scorched earth, and trees were showing some new signs of life. Yet, a large number of vineyards in the area were still showing the toll of what had happened as if they were in some form of post-traumatic stress.

Clearing out the damaged vineyard equipment and setting out new trellising at Tilbrook Estate, wearing a filtered face mask to protect from CCA leakage.

 

It was quite solemn and fairly harrowing driving past rubble that once resembled family homes. Even though I’m only a neighbour to the Hills community, I felt what they must be feeling.

I drove into the main entrance of Tilbrook Estate, hopeful, and found as my small city car trudged up the gravel hill past what was a beautiful vineyard, broken trellising, burnt vines that were cut back to their bases and patchy grass.

James Tilbrook’s winery was left in rubble and ashes after the fire tore through his property.

 

Shortly after, owner James Tilbrook arrived and we started talking about what had happened to his livelihood and he drove me through his property before we filmed his interview and I heard about the aftermath of the fires firsthand.

He mentioned that the common, and toxic, chemical used to treat timber vineyard posts, copper, chrome arsenate (CCA), had possibly leaked into the soil of the vineyard and was also possibly in the air (on muggy, wet days).

Nothing was left untouched, not even the wine already bottled.

 

James’ friend, working to clean up the vineyard on the day I was there, was wearing a filtered facemask to prevent inhaling this chemical and James mentioned for me to not venture too close to the vineyard block.

Walking around the property post-interview, whilst filming B-roll footage, made me fully realise the extent of what had happened. I tend to think the images of the winery and the vineyard speak for themselves.

Even Tilbrook Estate’s concrete fencing and metal gates were left in ruins.

 

Barrister’s Block Premium Wines

Following the late morning interview with James at his site, I drove only 15 minutes down the road and around a corner to Barrister’s Block where the busy and hopeful owner, Jan Siemelink-Allen, was waiting.

Introductions aside, again I was driven on a tour of the damaged site: 20 acres of her 60 acre vineyard that was lost to the fire. As confronting as it looked, I could tell from Jan’s tone and composition that coming back from the brink is entirely achievable.

I sat down with Jan Siemelink-Allen, owner of Barrister’s Block Premium Wines, as she detailed what happened on the day the fires came through.

 

Already, I could tell the atmosphere was different, even though the same fire that had destroyed James’ property had done its work here, but I wasn’t prepared for how Jan would describe the day it did so.

We went into the cosy tasting room at the site’s cellar door and I set up the camera to film our interview. She started describing what happened on the day, and the reality of it only sank in when she talked about the fire cresting the hill at the top of her property.

All the while she was detailing the fire’s movement step by step, I couldn’t help but think back to the CFS footage posted on social media only a week or so beforehand of a fire crew driving through black smoke with embers falling all around them, and compare that to what Jan was saying, realising how similar these situations were.

This was, regretfully, a common scene across much of the Adelaide Hills after the Cudlee Creek fire burnt through vineyards, wineries and properties alike.

 

Driving home that day, there was no usual music I’d be playing. It was unusually, but justifiably soundless, with the exception of the sound of the car’s engine and tyres chewing up the highway’s tarmac.

Reflecting on the day, it is remarkable how an industry as dependant on Mother Nature and her seemingly-ever changing climate and weather patterns, shows such strength, character and versatility. Its businesses, like those run by Jan and James, are resilient and thus, typically Australian.

Read the full stories on bushfire recovery and an examination of the state of insurance for wine businesses in the wake of summer’s devastating, bushfire season in the April issue of the Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker.

Watch the videos filmed, edited and produced by myself below. Feel free to share them around!

James Tilbrook’s reflection on Adelaide Hills bushfires

Road to Recovery – Barrister’s Block Wines

Images & videos: Samuel Squire

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