August 18 was a regular work day for many, including those at the Blasted Church winery in Okanagan Falls, until a plume of smoke started rising from the mountainside nearby.
“It’s the Okanagan so you see them all the time, and (you) kind of assume that nothing would really come of it, but as the fire was rushing down over the hill towards us, (we) realized it was… a more serious situation than we might have thought initially,” said Blasted Church Winery winemaker, Evan Saunders.
Leaving their property on a whim, not knowing what they may come back to, was stressful for many at the business. This anxiety was shared by many around the community of Okanagan Falls who were also forced to evacuate their homes.
Weeks later, with the fire calmed down and remaining as held by BC Wildfire crews, Blasted Church is back in business.
On Wednesday, Sept. 2, winery staff gathered around a newly painted sign in their driveway, which reads “thank you” with praying hands illustrated beside it. They transformed their driveway into a sign of thanks as a tribute to crews who helped protect their community from the Christie Mountain wildfire.
Although firefighting activity has slowed, six helicopters continue to attack the fire. Now, these pilots will likely see this message while flying over Okanagan Falls.
“Here we still stand, so the big ‘thank you’ (is) kind of a tribute to all the work the firefighters did to keep us here,” said Saunders. “A big thanks to all the firefighters.”
Around the Okanagan Falls community, signs remain standing at the end of driveways, erected by residents thanking firefighters as they drove in to fight the blaze.
Staff at Blasted Church were among the first to call in the fire the day it was discovered, and they were also some of the first to be evacuated. Their staff, who live just across the street from the winery, as well as owner Evelyn Campbell had to pack what they could, and leave.
“You grab a few things that are important to you, whether it’s a case of wine, or documents, and hit the road,” said Saunders.
Realizing the fire was out of control, and how close it is to homes on the mountainside, Saunders said hit home in a different way.
“It was a pretty scary thing, a pretty fast-moving fire… it started leaping from tree to tree down the front hill.”
As Saunders describes the first day of the fire, the mountain behind him is stained red with lines of fire retardant. Like their freshly painted driveway sign, Saunders said the red lines will also likely be there for some time.
Fortunately for their crops, Blasted Church sources their water from Skaha Lake using a pumphouse, and has not been affected by water restrictions like the majority of the Okanagan Falls community. However fruit businesses affected by the restrictions may result in a high amount of stress put on crops during a critical point in their growing season.
Returning to normal has been a slow process, the winemaker explained. In addition to the many steps it took to return to their properties, Saunders said seven days away from their work has set their business back during one of the busiest times of the year.
Next, farmers, including the roughly 20 staff at Blasted Church, are focusing on preparing for harvest.
“Everyone is sort of all hands on deck right now, and we’re working through,” Saunders said.