In the darkness of night on Saturday, November 19, Christine Vrooman of Ankida Ridge Vineyards looked out her bedroom window and noticed a fire on the southwest face of Mount Pleasant. From the comfort of her bed, the unnerving scene did not seem to be an immediate threat to her home, her winery or her special vineyard plot of about two acres that produces some of the finest pinot noir and chardonnay in Virginia.
Nearby, the U.S. Forest Service teamed up with the Virginia Department of Forestry, and later a Type 3 task force from Montana. They rushed to establish strategic fire lines. Fire lines—created by making lines of cleared ground at the head of a fire—can sometimes be enough to contain a forest fire.
But Vrooman’s concern grew as she watched the flames jump a fire line and spread to the neighboring mountain. At this point, her family’s home and adjacent vineyard were still protected, but the blaze continued to encroach on their land. “We spent Sunday watching the flames and smoke grow to our north, east and west,” she says.
The Vrooman family sprang into action to save their house and farm. A beloved flock of sheep that grazes on weeds and fertilizes the vineyards was shepherded to a safer area. By Monday, the fire grew closer from the west. “We worked in the backyard all day stomping out and shoveling little flareups,” Vrooman says. Firefighters flew overhead and dumped water on the Vroomans’ backyard—3,000 gallons at a time.
As darkness fell, the family felt the worst had been avoided. “We thought we were safe,” Vrooman says. “But our eyes kept going to the smoldering hollowed-out pine tree behind us. We watched it into the evening hours,” Vrooman says. “Then the winds picked up again, and one big gust swirled the embers from the tree like a mini tornado, spewing them everywhere. After that gust, at about 9:30pm, we could see the bank where the helicopter had dumped the water behind the yard suddenly become all aglow. It spread quickly. It was growing fast toward our backyard.”
Vrooman called 9-1-1. Swift decisions needed to be made. The family gathered their evacuation bags, and shared their priorities with the firefighters. “I did tell the early arrivals that if they had to choose between saving the house or the vineyard, they were to save the vineyard,” says Vrooman. “The house can be rebuilt in a year. To get back what we would have lost in the vineyard, it would have been three to five years, with no income during that time.”
With the fire 80 yards from the home, they thought they had enough time to evacuate. Then shouts came from the other side of the building: “It’s behind the house!” shouted Vrooman’s husband, Dennis, as part of the fire encroached from the rear.
“The flames were leaping in the air all along the bank just behind the house, about 40 feet away,” she says. “It grew to about 30 feet from the house before the local fire companies made it up the mountain. Bless them all. I was never so happy to see that line of cars, trucks and lights come up our road.” She watched from the winery, where she and her daughters took refuge.
“The firefighters worked for a couple hours and felt we were out of danger and would be safe to stay at the house. We took turns staying awake all night to monitor.”
But they still weren’t in the clear. The next morning, the fire traveled down to the vineyard. Task force firefighters got there in time to stop it at the eastern fence line, about 20 feet from the vines.
“We spent the next couple days watching in every direction for anything smoldering, glowing,” Vrooman says. The fire finally moved away from the winery and the vineyard, but thick smoke hung in the air and at times burned their eyes as they worked to restore things to normalcy.
“The miracle is that not one home was lost, no injuries,” Vrooman marvels. “Those firefighters from all across the land became our friends. We kept a pot of hot coffee ready. The Amherst community baked and baked and these guys were well fed. We had several states based here: Alaska, Montana, West Virginia, Minnesota and more. They are our heroes.”
The forest fire grew to consume 11,229 acres over 10 days. The now-burnt ground surrounds Ankida Ridge on most sides, evidence of the flames that came within 20 to 30 feet of the vineyard and the house. For the Vrooman family, coming this close to losing their vineyard amplifies the meaning of its name—Ankida is an ancient Sumerian word for “where heaven and earth join.” Last month, they seemed to have a little help from the former.