Legislature

State firefighting fleet cleared for takeoff

By Vic Vela
Posted

One way or another, the state will soon free up money to get an unfunded aerial firefighting fleet off the ground.

The governor's office and legislative leaders are on board with a spending plan that would set aside $21 million to purchase or contract planes and helicopters that are equipped to fight fires.

The money was approved through an amendment to the annual state budget that was debated in the Senate on April 3.

Gov. John Hickenlooper's office and lawmakers will have to get creative to find where in the budget the fleet funding will be secured. But all sides agree that this will happen this year - much to excitement of the legislator who has been instrumental in driving the creation of the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps.

"Quite frankly, this is the most important legislation of my life," said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction.

The funding behind King's effort comes on the heels of a much-anticipated state fire report that was released last week.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control found that the state lacks resources in key firefighting areas, including a lack of aerial firefighting capabilities.

"Colorado does not have the ability to deliver appropriate aviation resources in a timely fashion to support local suppression response to small fires while they are still small," states the report, which was authored by CDFPC Director Paul Cooke.

The report was mandated through last year's passage of a bill - sponsored by King and Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge - that created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, a state-owned firefighting fleet.

The "idea" of the fleet became law, but the legislation went unfunded, at least until the state could learn more about the feasibility of having its own fire fleet.

Prior to the release of the fire report, Hickenlooper had been non-committal on the idea of undertaking the potentially enormous costs that come with operating a state-owned aerial fleet. However, Hickenlooper had been open to exploring ways of sharing those costs through a multi-state effort.

For months, it was uncertain whether the fleet would ever become a reality. That all changed after Cooke released his 103-page fire report on March 28.

Cooke presented the report's finding to a special legislative committee on April 3. He told lawmakers that Colorado competes with other states for federal resources to fight fires, and that the state doesn't have the proper amount of tools needed to combat early or late-season wildfires.

Cooke also said that the state currently has just two, single-engine air tankers available to deal with the entire state's firefighting needs.

"The state, in terms of being able to help to bring overwhelming force to a wildfire, that's not the case..." he said.

Cooke's report recommended that the state acquire $33 million worth of firefighting aircraft and other technology.

But Cooke later told the governor's office that it should hold off on acquiring two large, fixed-wing air tankers - as his report recommended - because precipitation from this winter's weather makes it difficult to determine when those large tankers would even be needed this year. That cuts price tag by $12 million.

So the state plans to move forward with the purchase of two multi-mission fixed-wing planes and will contract for the use of four Type III rotor wing planes and four single-engine air tankers.

The state will also spend $100,000 to set up a wildfire information management system, which will provide real-time fire information within the statewide fire communications system.

The rest of the $21 million will be spent of airport fees, equipment and other related expenses.

The Senate set aside the fleet money for this year's budget in a placeholder funding area, until it is moved to another area within the budget.

Henry Sobanet, the state's budget director, said that the funding is expected to come from the state's Tax Payer Bill of Rights reserves and through the delaying of paying back certain cash funds.

"I think we'll get the funding from the exact places where we want to see it come from," Sobanet said.

Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper's chief strategist, said the governor's office believes this is a large investment worth undertaking.

"We don't throw $20 million around lightly," Salazar said. "But in the context of the potential costs of the fire and getting ahead of it, the consensus... is that this is a wise new position for the state to take."