Colorado weighs creating fleet of aircraft to fight wildfires

(Photo: CPR/Pat Mack)
<p>State legislators of both parties have reached agreement on legislation that would create a state firefighting fleet. Sen. Steve King says the fleet would include three helicopters like this for the fire season. Down the road, the state could consider adding its own air tanker.</p>

Legislative leaders from both parties have struck a deal to create a state fleet of aircraft to fight wildfires, which would be able to respond more quickly than regionally based federal aircraft can reach Colorado.

If the bill is approved, the state would lease three helicopters for the firefighting season. Down the road, the state could add an air tanker.

"Wildfires as we’ve seen over the past two years are a clear and present danger in the state of Colorado," Senator Steve King (R-Grand Junction) says. "We are one lightning strike, one errant match strike, one arsonist match strike, one terrorist match strike away from a catastrophic fire."

In addition to other destruction, King fears a major fire could also damage the state's water supply. He says the 2002 Hayman Fire resulted in $28 million in repairs to the watershed by the Cheesman Reservior.

Additionally, King notes the $8-12 million annual cost to operate the state fleet is worth it, since those aircraft would be able to reach fires faster than federal aircraft, increasing the odds of containing a fire quickly.

The helicopters would transport firefighters and drop slurry on fires. One of the aircraft would be a command copter, complete with night vision and thermal imaging capability.

King proposed the state fleet idea last year but it didn't gain traction among Democrats who control the legislature. This year, Senate President Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) is cosponsoring the legislation.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said last year he thought a number of western states should consider creating a regional fleet to supplement federal firefighting aircraft. A spokeswoman says the governor is waiting for a report on whether the state should supplement the federal firefighting fleet before making any decision on the legislation.