Fires briefly bring smoke to other eastern Washington growing regions

A series of wildfires broke out Tuesday afternoon and evening in eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. One of the fires came up to the edge of Red Mountain, one of Washington’s most prestigious appellations.

“We lost some vines just from the heat,” says Marshall Edwards, vineyard operations manager at Shaw Vineyards, the largest vineyard owner on Red Mountain. “We’ve got gravel roads between the field [that burned] and the vineyard, thank goodness, and the fire stopped there.”

The fire started on the west side of Red Mountain, technically in the Yakima Valley appellation, damaging a 1.5-acre vineyard there. It then burned up a hill on the west side of the mountain, where Shaw 32 Vineyard is located, starting near Block 5.

The fire proceeded onto the north side of the mountain. Fire retardant dropped by plane and workers on the ground subsequently extinguished that part of the fire.

Shaw 32 is approximately 100 acres, with most of that planted to Cabernet Sauvignon along with small plantings of Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah. Elevations range from 500 to 1,144 feet above sea level. Edwards says the first three to four rows of the vineyard along the west side sustained damage.

The larger question is whether the smoke will have any impact on the rest of the site or elsewhere on Red Mountain. Most vineyards in the area finished going through bloom earlier this month. Generally speaking, this stage of development is thought to be less susceptible to smoke impact.

“For the most part, the grapes are like pea-sized berries right now,” Edwards said. “I’m optimistic that there won’t be damage to the fruit because of the timeframe and how fast it all happened, but it was pretty scary.” Overall, Shaw has 600 acres of vineyards on Red Mountain.

Tuesday started out ominously, with a red flag warning issued for the Tri-Cities due to hot temperatures, low humidity, and high winds. Subsequently a series of fires started, with their origin currently unknown.

The Hover Park and Hansen Road fires started at approximately 3:25pm. The latter fire subsequently burned onto the east side of the Horse Heaven Hills. (NB: Most of this appellation’s vineyard acreage is far away on the west side.) Level 2 evacuations were ordered.

One of the fires passed by Precept Wine’s Skyfall Vineyard. “The hillside was pretty singed,” says Precept COO Phil Kazanjian. “The vineyard is in good shape though. It was not impacted.”

A third fire broke out in Benton City near Ruppert and Demoss Roads at approximately 7:30 p.m. This was the fire that ultimately reached the edge of the Red Mountain appellation. The three fires were subsequently renamed the Benton Complex Fire.

“I was following the main fire, and then all of a sudden, I looked out my back deck and [the fire] was right there above Anelare [Winery],” says Damon LaLonde, who manages a number of vineyards on Red Mountain and in other areas of the Columbia Valley. “I could see helicopters dropping water buckets.” (Anelare did not sustain damage.)

Ryan Johnson, who manages WeatherEye Vineyard on the top of Red Mountain, says he arrived at the vineyard at approximately 8:20 p.m.

“As I got onto Sunset [Road], one of the air support [planes] flew right overhead and dropped a load of fire retardant on the hillside,” Johnson says. “It was pretty dramatic.”

Johnson deployed sprinklers for fire suppression, but ultimately the fire burned down the north side of the hill, away from the vineyard’s plantings.

“My thoughts definitely go out to anyone who lost property,” Johnson says. “The firefighters did a fantastic job. They are a cut above. Air Support was amazing. For those guys to drop fire retardant so close to things, that saved us. It really knocked [the fire] down quickly.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Benton Complex Fire was estimated to be 7,000 acres in size and 50% contained.

Red Mountain is one of Washington’s best-known growing regions. Though a mere 4,040-acres in size, over half of that is planted to wine grapes, most of it Cabernet Sauvignon. There are more than 15 wineries located on Red Mountain, but hundreds of wineries use fruit from the appellation.

There were also fires that started on June 13th in other areas of eastern Washington and north eastern Oregon, including the Hat Rock and Mount Hebron fires in Umatilla County. These fires briefly blew smoke into Walla Walla Valley.

There are a wide variety of factors that determine if wine grapes are impacted by wildfire smoke. These include intensity, duration, fuel source, time of the growing season, and other factors.

Ironically in the case of Tuesday’s events, the wind that helped drive the fires also the moved smoke through quickly. This, along with it being early in the growing season, could be pivotal in limiting impact.

“The smoke didn’t really stay stagnant,” says LaLonde says. “It pretty much moved on out.”

By Wednesday, there was no smoke in sight, and it was a picture-perfect, bluebird day on Red Mountain. The blackened edge of the mountain was the only visible sign of the fire’s presence.

Top photograph of plane dropping fire retardant courtesy of Damon LaLonde. Bottom photograph courtesy of JJ Williams.

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