British Columbia

Okanagan winery 10 years after Mountain Park fire

The hot, dry summer of 2003 was shaping up to be the perfect growing season for the vineyards St Hubertus winery in Kelowna, B.C. until the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire swept through. The CBC's Chris Walker sat down with co-owner Leo Gebert to talk about the fire and the rebuilding process.

Leo Gebert's St. Hubertus winery and home were destroyed in the summer of 2003

The hot, dry summer of 2003 was shaping up to be the perfect growing season in the vineyards of the St Hubertus winery in Kelowna, B.C., until the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire struck the region.

That August and September the devastating wildfire destroyed both the winery and the home, along with hundreds of other buildings in the community.

Now on the tenth anniversary of the fire, St Hubertus has issued a commemorative wine to thank all those that pitched in to help rebuild the winery.

The CBC's Chris Walker sat down with co-owner Leo Gebert to talk about the fire and the rebuilding process.

Q: Take me back to just before the fires hit... what were you thinking as you watched the flames?

You didn't think too much because of the might of all the firefighters and the helicopters. The entire arsenal was being thrown at that fire. We could see the fire approaching from our bedroom window, but it was very slow, so we figured 'what could happen'? We weren't even on evacuation alert.

But that evening I was at a meeting, and I got a phone call telling me the fire department was dumping flame retardant on the vineyard and asking me to get home.

Q: What happened next? 

I went to the south side of the property and I could see the fire was growing down the other side of the hill and I thought 'there are no heroes here, we're leaving'.

Our main concern was that someone would break in or steal stuff. We put all the equipment away so it wasn't in the open, we loaded up the camper, loaded up the kids, the dogs, grandma, the whole works, and then left the property. We evacuated to the Black Mountain District, and eventually went to friends in Vernon.

Q: When the smoke cleared, what was the damage? 

The real killer was having no information. But when we talked to the city, they didn't know if it was the house or the winery that was lost. They actually emailed me a photo, and I then realized both the house and the winery were gone.

I guess one of the reasons they didn't know was that the our wine library was in the house, so we'd keep every year about 18 bottles of each vintage, so when both buildings burned down, all they saw were bottles and bottles.

Q: How did the fire change the winery? 

I don't think it changed the winery too much. We were up and in operation in 30 days, and there was a huge community involvement in the rebuilding process.

Even city hall basically turned a blind eye on the regular stuff you had to go through, I mean they still did inspections and stuff, but the process was very fast. We had several other wineries that chipped in, so we could buy their crops.

Q: How is the winery doing now? 

We're doing well. The vineyard is in full production, sales are good, so we can't really complain. Especially from the winery side, there has been no lasting impact.

Q: Do you do anything differently now than before the fire? 

When we landscaped, we made sure there are no trees around the building. We changed them all over to solar power, and I think generally we appreciate more what we have and once that happens it's a totally different experience.

Q: How did it change you personally? 

You look at stuff differently. You don't take everything for granted as you did before. We were lucky, nobody got hurt, and financially, sure the insurance could have been better. You survive it and you keep on going, but you take more time for yourself.

Q: Do you worry about another fire here now? 

The main thing I worry about now is a grass fire. Yes, it's still at the top of our minds, and there are different grasses here than there were before the fire.

The safe is now in a safer place, and we've backed up all our pictures, I think it will work, but I don't want to have to test it again.