Smoke from the Kelowna-area wildfire and a brief ban on tourism in the wider Okanagan Valley have dealt another blow to B.C.’s premier wine region, exacerbating its twin crises of climate change and a worsening economy.
Miles Prodan, president and chief executive of Wine Growers British Columbia, the trade organization representing 180 wineries making nearly all the commercial wine in the province, said many of his non-profit’s members were grappling with crop damaged by the brutal 2021 wildfire season and the concurrent heat dome when a historic cold snap last December wiped out up to half the grapes due to be harvested in the coming weeks. Plus, he said, a surge in tourists after pandemic restrictions lifted never materialized, as inflation has led to people slowing their spending and smoke from wildfires makes visitors reticent to return.
Most recently, on Saturday, a ban on tourists using hotels in the Okanagan was introduced amid a provincial state of emergency so that evacuees fleeing the wildfire and first responders could find rooms. The ban was originally slated to last until Labour Day, but was lifted Tuesday afternoon by the province for everywhere except West Kelowna starting Wednesday.
But the travel restriction added volatility during the multibillion-dollar sector’s biggest month of the year, effectively shutting down important revenue streams such as wine tours and destination weddings, according to Mr. Prodan, who supported the ban.
“We probably lost those who were coming out before Labour Day,” he said, adding that crop losses mean “there is concern about being able to make it through a year with only half as much wine.”
Trina Plamondon, a Vancouver-based wine consultant, said the larger players can wait out these bad years, but smaller family wineries will be hurt the most. She said one metric for these struggles is that 40 wineries in the Okanagan are now for sale, when very few were on the market a year ago. Most wineries have tasting rooms or adjacent restaurants to show off their products and make money from tourists, she said.
Facing revenue shortfalls from climate-related crop losses, wine producers have raised prices significantly for consumers and the tour operators that bring hundreds of them to the vineyards, according to Krystina Rossworm, who owns and operates Beach Bum Tours in the District of Lake Country with her husband.
Over the past two years, most wineries have at least doubled the fees they charge each person to book a tasting on their property from up to $5 to up to $15, she said. Plus, customers no longer get that surcharge back if they purchased a bottle, said Ms. Rossworm, whose husband spent last Thursday night rescuing people who had jumped into Okanagan Lake to avoid getting burned to death by the fire. Their company had already lost $25,000 in cancelled bookings last weekend and, she fears, many wineries could go bankrupt this year.
“We are going to be looking at pivoting Beach Bum into something that is no longer wine-tour focused,” said Ms. Rossworm, who had five drivers that needed to be evacuated.
Kate Durisek, executive director of the BC Wine Grape Council, an industry-supported research and education body based in Penticton, said different varietals of grape are affected in different ways by lingering wildfire smoke, with some 2021 vintages tasting similar to past harvests and some so damaged certain vineyards declined to release them.
“We’re all just learning about how to be resilient for different climate changes, more so extreme weather going from cold to hot, that’s the challenge – and how do we deal with smoke exposure,” said Ms. Durisek, whose organization held a seminar last year whereby an Australian expert taught vintners how to filter out smoke compounds from different wines.
There are more than 27,000 people under evacuation orders across the province and more than 35,000 on evacuation alert owing to several blazes, including the 110-square-kilometre McDougall Creek wildfire affecting West Kelowna, Kelowna and Lake Country.
Still, residents in that central part of the Okanagan Valley received some good news Tuesday, with local fire chiefs in and around Kelowna reporting no people died and fewer homes were lost than expected. Jason Brolund, West Kelowna’s fire chief, said at a news conference that the total number of structural losses in his community is fewer than 90, and that, in the neighbouring Westbank First Nation, fewer than 20 buildings were estimated to have been razed.
The Kelowna area was still covered in thick smoke on Tuesday, preventing residents from getting a clearer image of the fire’s wrath, but the haze was expected to lift later that day.
Meanwhile, heavy smoke from a wildfire in the Shuswap Lake region east of Kamloops was preventing firefighters from mounting an aerial assault on the blaze that destroyed an undetermined number of properties in Scotch Creek, Celista and other North Shuswap communities.
With a report from The Canadian Press