DENVER – State senators who hoped to buy a firefighting air force for Colorado were left Friday with nothing but paper airplanes.
A Senate panel voted to advance Senate Bill 245, which creates the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, but senators withheld the money to buy aircraft.
So for now, the idea will exist on paper, until state leaders can figure out whether – and how – to buy the planes. Colorado could get discount air tankers from the federal government, at a price of $17.5 million for three heavy tankers and three tactical planes.
The sponsor, Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said he failed to convince Gov. John Hickenlooper to buy airplanes immediately. King said he met several times with Hickenlooper’s staff on the issue over the last nine months, but never with the governor himself.
“Maybe I should have just sat in his office and waited till he walked out to say, ‘We need to talk about wildfires,’” King said.
King noted that Hickenlooper and the Legislature have set aside $10 million for forest health grants to mitigate the risks of fires. He thinks the money would be better spent preparing to fight fires from the air.
“I must assume that mitigation over wildfire preparedness is the priority our governor has chosen,” King said.
But Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said mitigation can prevent fires from starting or getting big.
“I think that $10 million for the grant program is the right priority,” Steadman said.
Other Republicans began to lay the blame for the coming fire season at Hickenlooper’s feet.
“If the governor’s going to abdicate his role in protecting the people of Colorado, then the Legislature should do it,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.
Harvey referenced the Boston Marathon bombing and said dry Western forests present a national security threat.
“It could be a coordinated effort by terrorists who want to do harm to the citizens of Colorado,” Harvey said.
Democratic senators defended Hickenlooper.
“I’m sorry it’s become an indictment of the governor. We control the purse strings in this building,” said Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The committee passed the bill 7-0 Friday morning, but it voted 4-3 against spending $17.5 million to obtain an air tanker fleet.
Hickenlooper’s spokesman, Eric Brown, said Hickenlooper is interested, but King does not have a way to pay for the planes.
“Our policy folks have been working on it. It’s not like we’re not engaged,” Brown said.
One idea that’s been discussed is to pool resources with other Western states to buy a fleet of planes, Brown said.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told Congress this week that he supports the idea of states obtaining their own tankers.
Tidwell assured U.S. senators that his agency would have enough planes to handle the fire season, but politicians in both Denver and Washington have been critical of the Forest Service, which has seen its fleet dwindle from 44 air tankers a decade ago to around a dozen now.
Despite the lack of money, the Legislature hasn’t heard the last of the air-tanker issue, said King’s fellow sponsor, Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge.
“This is an issue we’re not going to let die,” Jahn said.