Senators want firefighting air force

Wheat Ridge lawmaker initially thought idea sounded a bit ‘crazy’

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 because of safety concerns.

The lack of aircraft 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 with 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 about $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 as 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-Un’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.

The call to create the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps comes just after the state’s most destructive wildfire season, with 646 homes burned and six fatalities. The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control counted 4,167 wildland fires on 384,803 acres in 2012.

The state’s share of firefighting costs was $48.1 million last year.

Colorado relies on the federal government for large air tankers. But it signs contracts for exclusive use of single-engine air tankers from Idaho during fire season. This year, Colorado has two single-engine tankers under contract, and it might add a third or a helicopter, said Paul Cooke, director of the fire-safety division.

The Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association supports buying air tankers because state firefighters can’t count on federal air support, said Steven Pischke, the group’s president.

Large federal air tankers were grounded in 2002 when the wings came off a C-130 fighting a fire in California, killing the crew of three. A month later, a wing fell off a smaller tanker over a fire near Estes Park, killing both crewmen.

“If another one of those suffers a fatal crash, it is very possible that they could ground the entire fleet. I would hate to think where we would be at that point in time,” Pischke said.

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