Large air tanker takes up residence in Colorado Springs to help fight potential wildfires this summer

Courtesy Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control
The state of Colorado is paying $32,000 a day to keep an air tanker on hand throughout the summer to help battle any potential wildfires.

A large air tanker will be on hand in Colorado for the next few months to help fight possible wildfires. The state has had a similar contract to secure the plane for the past two summers, but this is the first time it will be based at the Colorado Springs Air Tanker Base. The facility was finished last year using funding from the 2018 Omnibus Bill. 

The state is paying $32,000 a day to have the plane on standby. 

Sonya Straka with the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control says in 2020 severe fires in other states took priority over Colorado when it came to air tankers.

"We wanted to contract an aircraft strictly for the state of Colorado so we could have this aircraft available to us within the state at all times during the contracted period, rather than having to compete with other states for this resource," she said.

Straka said the plane will be shared with neighboring states but it is required to return to Colorado Springs overnight. 

In both 2021 and 2022, the air tanker was used to disperse more than 171,000 gallons of retardant on fires in Colorado. It was also used in New Mexico, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. 

Straka said the state also has had several single-engine air tankers and helicopters on contract since February and March and continuing through November to assist in aerial firefighting on a longer-term basis. 

Rocco Snart, also with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said that while Colorado is poised to have a relatively average fire season there will still be fires that need the type of response the air tanker can provide.

"They're super useful for us to work on some initial attacks and try to stop fires and keep them smaller until we can get ground resources in there and put the fires out," he said, referring to the plane.

The Colorado Springs Air Tanker Base is staffed seven days a week with a pilot, co-pilot, mechanic and a flight engineer at the base during the contract period. The base is also manned by U.S. Forest Service personnel to dispatch and load the aircraft.

Equipment at the site is capable of producing nearly 87,000 gallons of fire retardant per hour. The air tanker can carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant or water at one time. 

"Having that tanker available to us is going to be very critical because [there are a lot of planes under] federal contracts and those folks are going to have to move those aircraft out and they're going to be working in other areas where there's a higher fire danger and higher fire potential," Snart said. "So with this being available, we'll be able to cover Colorado if our other partners have to take off and fight fire somewhere else."

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control also has letters of approval from the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies granting authority for utilizing the plane over any jurisdiction in Colorado.

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