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Australian bushfires: eyewitness reports from Punt Road, Oakridge, Wedgetail

One wine producer has described watching 'explosion after explosion as the tractors blew up', as bushfires continue to rage in the Yarra Valley.

Unprecedented 48 degree temperatures and blast-furnace winds on Saturday sparked wild fires that have left more than 130 people dead across the state of Victoria, with some of the worst fatalities occurring in to the north and east of the Yarra Valley.

Roundstone winery restaurant was burnt to the ground, and dozens of other properties were damaged as the fires raced across the region.

In the north-west fire burnt through the Lance Family vineyard, site of the distinguished Punch close-planted pinot noir; at Domaine Chandon the extreme radiant heat of the fires caused bottles inside a warehouse to explode; and at Punt Road cellar door, fire burned and destroyed winery sheds.

‘I can’t believe we’re still here,’ said Punt Road’s Cameron Mackenzie. ‘We’ve dodged a bullet, that’s for sure. The fire just ripped through from the north in two or three minutes. We managed to get out of its way and watch explosion after explosion as the tractors blew up.’

Many wineries were saved by a sudden change in wind direction late on Saturday.

‘The fires were heading straight for us,’ said David Bicknell of Oakridge Estate. ‘If those hot northerly winds had kept up for another twenty minutes, we would have been toast.’

‘The cool change saved us,’ said Guy Lamothe of Wedgetail Estate in the valley’s north-west. ‘We were next in line. The fire was 1km away. But then the wind direction shifted to the south.’

For others, the wind change brought terror.

‘A fire started just south of us earlier in the day,’ said Yabby Lake winemaker Tom Carson, whose Serrat vineyard is the middle of the valley. ‘The northerlies pushed it down to Punt Road, but then the southerly came through and turned it around. It picked up embers from the trees it had already burnt on the way and came at us like a freight train. We stayed and fought it and saved the house, and the family are all okay. But we lost the vineyard.’

Fires also claimed several vineyards south of the Heathcote wine region in central Victoria at the weekend, and continue to burn in wine regions around the state: in Gippsland to the east of Melbourne; the Upper Goulburn district north of the city; around Beechworth in the north-east; and in the Yarra Valley itself.

‘It’s a scene of mass destruction,’ said Tom Carson late today (Monday Melbourne time). ‘I’m standing here looking out at the town of Healesville and it’s still surrounded by smoke, with fires creeping down the hills towards it. They’re in for a tough night.’

Although the full extent of the destruction is yet to be determined, and vineyard owners continue to remain on high alert – and in some cases continue to fight fires – the wine community is beginning to rally.

Foster’s has committed A$750,000 to Victorian bushfire relief, and individual offers of help are emerging.

‘We’re keeping ourselves busy,’ said David Bicknell from Oakridge. ‘We’re going to donate grapes to Tom (Carson) so he’s got something to make under his own label this year. And we’ve offered the use of our winery here to Punt Road if they need it.’

Written by Max Allen in Melbourne

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