Senator sets sights on firefighting planes
JOE HANEL/Durango Herald
CENTENNIAL – Wayne Coulson’s C-130 used to fly with Air Force One, dragging a communication cable through the ocean so the president could to nuclear submarines.
On Wednesday, it lined up next to a runway at an airport south of Denver, came in low, and in a two-second burst emptied its load of simulated fire retardant in front of a phalanx of television and newspaper cameras.
It’s a sight Sen. Steve King wants to see a lot more often in Colorado. King, R-Grand Junction, arranged with Coulson to show off his “Next Generation” aerial firefighting tanker for legislators and the media Wednesday.
King called in air support to back up his controversial proposal to spend up to $12 million lease or buy heavy helicopters and planes to fight fires in Colorado.
“It is hard to understand why we’ve gone two years of us talking about this and still not seen anything done,” King said.
But skeptics question the high costs and uncertain benefits of aerial firefighting.
King and Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, have introduced a bill to authorize the state to buy or lease three firefighting helicopters this year and four heavy air tankers next year.
But there’s a loophole to King’s bill big enough to fly a C-130 through: So far, it includes no funding.
The cost for the helicopters alone could range from $8 million to $12 million a year. King called on Gov. John Hickenlooper to help secure the funding.
“It is time for the governor to get in the game,” King said.
Last year, the Legislature passed King’s bill to create an aerial firefighting corps, but many lawmakers questioned the hefty price tag. So instead of spending money to buy planes, the bill merely told the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control to issue a report.
That report is due April 1, and the fire division won’t have any comments until then, a spokeswoman for the division said in an email.
King’s latest bill also doesn’t have funding attached, but he’s hoping the Legislature will come up with the money, unlike last year.
“I would be unbelievably disappointed if we did that again,” King said.
He has influential allies in the Senate. Sen. Gail Schwartz, chairwoman of the agriculture committee, backs him.
“It’s time Colorado makes sure we have the capacity to fight our fires,” said Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village.
King turned to Coulson to get attention for his bill with Wednesday’s air show.
Coulson is CEO of British Columbia-based Coulson Group, which is one of two companies to get a U.S. Forest Service contract for Next Generation air tankers. The Forest Service’s aging fleet had dwindled to as few as nine planes in recent years.
His C-130 will fight fires on federal land across the country this summer.
King’s bill is scheduled for its first hearing in the agriculture committee the first week of April.