Governor’s office: Yes to air fleet

Top strategist endorses contracting for firefighting force

DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief wildfire official recommends spending $33.6 million this year so Colorado can contract for its own aerial firefighting fleet.

Hickenlooper’s staff members are working with legislative leaders to obtain funding for about two-thirds of the request this year.

The 103-page report from Paul Cooke, director of the state’s Fire Prevention and Control division, was a shock to Sen. Steve King, who has been pushing for a Colorado-based air fleet and thought he was getting nowhere.

“I am as relieved as I have been in two years,” King said after his first look at the report Friday.

Cooke’s report recommends the state contract for four single-engine air tankers, two large air tankers, two spotter planes and four helicopters. Last wildfire season, it had just two single-engine tankers under contract. The goal of the aircraft should be to quickly detect and extinguish fires that threaten lives, property or natural resources, according to the report.

King, R-Grand Junction, is sponsoring Senate Bill 164, which calls for the state to buy or lease three helicopters this year and four heavy air tankers next year – fewer aircraft than Cooke recommends in his report.

The report comes just as legislators are working on the state budget. The Senate will tackle the budget next week, and King said he will try to amend it to include funding for aerial firefighting.

Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper’s chief strategist, said in an email that the administration is working to find about $21 million to $22 million – the estimated amount that will be necessary this fire season.

The report stops short of saying the state should buy its own fleet, instead recommending that it contract with private aircraft operators. King has called for the state to take ownership of surplus military planes, but he said he’s “all good” with the plan to contract for aircraft rather than buying them.

Even before Friday’s report was released, though, it had blown up into a political fight.

Salazar told Denver TV station Fox 31 on Thursday night that King’s bill would never pass because it is too prescriptive. He clarified Friday that King’s bill as currently written still cannot pass, but it could be rewritten based on Friday’s report.

“Gov. Hickenlooper has never opposed the acquisition, lease or purchase of aerial resources,” Salazar said. “The issue has been waiting for the experts to finish the study, so we could legislate with factual data.”

King was defiant Friday morning before seeing the report.

“I guess I’ll see his senior staff at the bill signing,” King told the Herald.

After reading the report, he was mystified at the controversy.

“I don’t understand the politics of this right now. Why do we have to have fights over the stuff we agree on?” King said.

King and his co-sponsor, Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, both said they are committed to amending the bill and finding money to put planes and copters in the air this year.

“I think we’ve got to take care of this year’s immediate fire season. We fail to do so at our peril,” Carroll said.

Wednesday morning, King got statewide media coverage when he invited a private company to demonstrate its C-130 next generation air tanker on a south Denver airport. After the plane landed, King told reporters that Hickenlooper needs to “get in the game” and figure out how to pay for aerial firefighting.

Hickenlooper has expressed skepticism at the idea of a Colorado air fleet, but he has also said he’s interested in sharing a regional fleet with Western states.

At a January news conference, Cooke sounded pessimistic about the idea of a Colorado fleet.

“Before investing in these costly tools for suppression, we need to ensure that the current resources are being used to their maximum effectiveness,” Cooke said in January.

Cooke’s report maintains that it’s a bad idea for the state to buy and operate its own fleet, saying it’s better to contract for the planes. The report proposes a goal to provide air support within 60 minutes of a request from fire managers and generate an incident assessment within 60 minutes of the first report of a fire. And that will take aircraft dedicated to Colorado.