Assaults from above are assisting emergency services to tackle fires which would otherwise be inaccessible.
A helitack water bomber was utilised at a bushfire at Berringa on Monday, taking only five minutes from getting the call to deployment.
While 14 tankers on the ground battled a fire edge stretching more than 100 metres, the helitack performed 13 passes over the fire with water from a nearby dam, amounting to 19,000 litres of water dropped.
The Berringa fire was contained within an hour.
Water bombers are not the only airborne machines expected to combat fires in the Ballarat region this summer.
The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning have announced a panel of remotely piloted aircraft system providers to assist with tackling problem fires in regional Victoria.
The fire at the Moonlight Creek crossing of Derwent Jack Road east of the township, about 43 kilometres southwest of Ballarat, was first reported at 2.40pm.
Air Attack Supervisor Lee Gleeson said he was contacted by CFA ground crews because the western flank of the fire was inaccessible.
“CFA had really good access to one side of the fire,” he said. “The word from the fire ground was that there were areas they couldn’t get into.”
Mr Gleeson operates in a Firebird helicopter during water bombing missions, communicating with firefighters and pilots to ensure the water hits the target.
Speed is a priority. Once his team gets a call, it’s an average of eight minutes before they’re up in the air.
“We need to work our where the fire is, do a little bit of planning on how how far away it is and get a fuel truck into a paddock,” he said.
“We’ll grab cold drink of water and go to the bathroom, throw on our overalls and its a 200 metre walk to the helicopters.”
While water bombers are able to make a tangible difference to fires now, regional Victoria may soon see drones in the skies during blazes, assisting with thermal mapping and communication.
After a multi-phase selection process last year, Sydney-based Ninox Robotics were one of the drone companies chosen for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s new panel of endurance drone providers.
Ninox Robotics founder Marcus Ehrlich said they would be involved in operations around bushfire control and search and rescue. The company is permitted by CASA to fly beyond visual line of sight, above the 400ft ceiling and perform night operations.
“The systems can be utilised for a range of things, real-time mapping of fire fronts and blazes, using thermal cameras,” he said.
“We can go up at night, it’s a particular strength of ours, and we’re not putting anyone in danger.”
Mr Ehrlich said drones are also cost-competitive, because they don’t need much fuel, with flight times of over four hours. But the company currently needs CASA area approval for each job, meaning their deployment can take up to a week.
“There’s all sorts of brainpower going in to how it could work quicker on an emergency services front, and some policy work currently happening on CASA end,” he said.
“Drones aren’t a silver bullet, we’re just another excellent arsenal in the lockup.”
National Aerial Firefighting Centre general manager Richard Alder said the effectiveness of air attacks was down to improving technology and speed.
“Improved technology of the aircraft, what we use to manage them, tracking locations in real time and making sure they’re allocated effectively,” he said.
“One thing is we get them out the door and off the ground as quickly as possible.
“Victoria has been really effective in pre-program dispatch, and when dispatching aircraft to a fire, everything is done to reduce the time.
“It’s well understood the best effect you can get from an aircraft is getting in early and keeping the fire small.”
Mr Alder said remotely piloted aircraft systems, like those available for use in government departments from Ninox Robotics, provide endless possibilities for firefighting.
“The possibilities are quite dramatic with reducing costs,” he said.
“We’re a way off seeing drones for fire bombing and for active control, but maybe not as far off as we think.
“It’s not a resolution but more evolutionary. At the end of the day, it’s still firefighters on the ground who are doing the work.”