Photo credit: Ricky French

The most incredible film ever shot in the Adelaide Hills could well be the seven second video Geoff Weaver recorded of the Cudlee Creek bushfire on December 20 last year, moments before the 71-year-old winemaker fled for his life. In the video the fire is consuming the hillside on his Lenswood vineyard, flowing like lava down a volcano. The scene pans to a helicopter buzzing bravely just above the tree canopy in near zero visibility. It drops a payload of water, but the wind is so strong the water disperses before it hits the ground. Gum trees thrash desperately in the screaming wind, as if trying to uproot themselves and flee the flames clawing at their trunks. In the foreground is the vineyard Weaver planted with his dad in 1982, quivering and green. So preoccupied is he with this fire he doesn’t notice the spot fire that’s jumped up behind him. At this point Weaver stops the video and makes a dash for the farm shed but when he gets there it’s already on fire. His last resort is the dam, 250 metres away. He makes it to the water’s edge and waits for rescue as fuel drums explode and his car, shed, and all his vineyard equipment is destroyed. Four decades worth of his cherished landscapes paintings displayed inside his beloved cabin are returned to the landscape as ash. Sheltering beside him is a single kangaroo.

The travelling horror show that was last summer’s bushfires hit Tumbarumba in the Snowy Mountains on New Year’s Eve. Tom and Helle Southwell from Johansen Wines got the call that the mammoth Dunns Road fire was heading their way at 4am. They raced to move tractors and equipment to safety and evacuated into town just as the fire front hit. By mid-morning when they returned their top vineyard was a smouldering mess with hundreds of spot fires still burning. They spent hours over six hours driving round with a spray unit mounted to their tractor, trying to save anything they could, before the sirens of an RFS truck alerted them to the second fire front that had crept up. The heavily timbered road that was their route to safety burst into flames. There are things that happened that day that Southwell still can’t talk about. The family lost one vineyard to fire and the other to smoke.

Twenty kilometres down the road winemaker Adrian Brayne of Obsession Wines fought the same blaze. It took his vineyard and his home. All up 600,000 hectares would burn in that one fire, which wasn’t put out until mid-February. The town was without power for 26 days. Brayne describes the scene as a war zone. “At one point the boys in the fire truck are driving along and a kangaroo jumps out of the bush and it’s on fire. It’s lighting up the paddock behind the truck as they drove along trying to put out what’s in front of them.”

Brayne is still living in a caravan beside the ruins of his vineyards. He says it’s better than sleeping on the couch in the cellar door, like he did for a month while the fires were burning. January seems so long ago now, in a year where so much has happened, where so much has gone wrong. Brayne’s blood is wine. He’s following in the path of his parents, grandfather and great grandfather. “The thought has crossed my mind to give it away,” he says. “But grape and wine is my entire life. You can’t get it out of you.”…

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