State wants its own slurry bombers

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Journal/Sam Green A slurry bomber dumps on Meneffee Mountain last year during the Weber fire.

DENVER - Wanted: Three reasonably priced, large-capacity slurry bombers. Need ASAP. Please contact Colorado State Senate.They admit that it sounds at first like a "crazy" idea, but a bipartisan duo advanced a bill Thursday to get Colorado to buy its own firefighting air force.The U.S. Forest Service operates most of the country's large aerial tankers, but its fleet has shrunk to about a dozen planes - down from 44 a decade ago, before most aircraft were grounded over safety concerns.

The lack of planes could leave Colorado unprotected if there is another bad wildfire season, said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, sponsor of Senate Bill 245.

"We are one lightning strike ... away from a catastrophic fire that could change Colorado forever," King said.

King's fellow sponsor, Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, said at first she thought the idea was crazy.

"When he told me what he wanted to do, I said, 'You want to do what?'" Jahn said.

Fortunately for King and Jahn, they won't have to post an ad on Craigslist to find their airplanes. The state could get three 3,000-gallon tankers from a federal surplus property program for about $17.5 million - a bargain compared to the $80 million cost of a new air tanker, according to the Legislature's staff. Operating costs would be another $7.6 million a year.

Their bill passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday on a 5-0 vote, but that was the easy part.

Now the bill has to go to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where seven senators hold the keys to the state vault. They will have to decide whether they want to shell out some $25 million just as the government is recovering from an epic economic crisis.

"In my mind, it is such a clear and present danger to our state that this needs to be a priority," King said.

As big and King and Jahn's dreams are, they were dwarfed by one of their allies, Tony Kern, the former head of the Forest Service's aviation program.

The federal government has been studying its air tanker problem for a decade, but it isn't getting more planes in the air, Kern said. And the planes that are in service are old.

Kern thinks federal failures create an opportunity for Colorado to position itself as an international hub for aerial firefighting technology.

"We can fly a smart bomb through Kim Jong-Il's window, but we're still throwing slurry down from 1950s technology into the wind over fires when our own citizens are at risk," he said.joeh@cortezjournal.com