‘Extremely dry’: Authorities brace for fire risk around Ballarat

A helicopter bombs a controlled fire in Ballarat this week. Picture: Emergency Management Victoria
A helicopter bombs a controlled fire in Ballarat this week. Picture: Emergency Management Victoria

Ballarat has only had one day of rainfall above 1mm in the last 37 days, prompting top emergency chiefs to warn of a serious fire danger in the weeks ahead as temperatures climb into the 30s.

Emergency Management commissioner Craig Lapsley, who has regularly visited Ballarat during trials of nighttime waterbombing in recent weeks, said fires could still start on mild days as grasses have yellowed under a hot sun in Victoria’s driest February since 2009.

“We’ve had more than 30 days without any rain of significance,” he told The Courier.

Craig Lapsley.

Craig Lapsley.

“Now we’ve got extremely dry conditions.”

The latest Bureau of Meteorology numbers show Ballarat has recorded a drier-than-average February and March.

There has only been one day of substantial rainfall in the two months, when the gauge at Ballarat Airport recorded 4mm of rain on February 23.

This has placed CFA crews on high alert, with the mercury tipped to soar into the 30s today and tomorrow on the Labour Day long weekend.

CFA crews battle a blaze near Ballarat's Creswick Road on February 27.

CFA crews battle a blaze near Ballarat's Creswick Road on February 27.

CFA District 15 operations manager Brett Boatman, who helps oversee firefighters across the Ballarat region, confirmed the fire danger period would be in place until at least April 30, saying “we won’t be having any meaningful discussions about removing that until we have decent rainfall”.

“Fires have been burning through five to 10 acres before crews get onto them recently,” he said yesterday.

“With grasslands so dry, even mild temperature days with winds above 30km/h are concerning.”

Meanwhile, a groundbreaking trial of nighttime waterbombing has finished in Ballarat, with Victorian authorities hoping helicopters will be able to operate at night next summer, providing aerial support to ground crews after the sun sets and fires continue to burn.

Under current regulations, Victoria’s firefighting fleet must return to base before nightfall.

A report will now be prepared by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority before helicopter companies can be certified.

Mr Boatman said the tests involved local firefighters co-ordinating controlled burns for the aircraft to bomb around Ballarat.

“Safety is more pronounced in the dark,” he said.

“It was great to see co-operation between ground crews and aircraft crews in the trial.”