The clock is ticking on plan for air tankers

Few optimistic about finding $17M for firefighting force

DENVER – A state senator continues to look for $17 million for his idea to buy an airborne firefighting fleet, but his allies doubt they can secure the money by next Wednesday, when the Legislature goes home for the year.

“There are a lot of things that are possible in the last seven days,” said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, sponsor of Senate Bill 245.

King drafted the bill to create the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps and buy three heavy air tankers from the federal government.

His bill is advancing through the Legislature but without any money to buy planes.

King testified for his bill Wednesday at the House Agriculture Committee. The panel voted 11-1 to send the bill to the House Appropriations Committee, which controls access to the Legislature’s purse. A Friday meeting could be King’s best chance to get his bill funded.

King met with Gov. John Hickenlooper last Friday.

“It was a good meeting. I think those talks are still ongoing,” King said.

But the House sponsor of King’s bill, Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, sounded pessimistic that legislators would come up with $17 million.

“It isn’t going to get appropriated at that at all,” Gardner said.

The committee amended the bill with an idea from Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, to tell Colorado firefighting officials to report back to the Legislature by April 2014 about whether it would be a good idea to get into the slurry-bomber business.

That report, obviously, would come too late for the upcoming wildfire season. The state already contracts for two single-engine air tankers to respond to fires, and the federal government operates a small fleet of heavy tankers.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, became the first legislator to vote against the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously last week.

“A lot of it sounds like a great idea,” Saine said. “But I would like to see a business plan. I would like to see a cost-benefit analysis.”

But King maintains that the threat of big wildfires is so serious that there’s no time for further study.

“We’re only limited by our imagination as to how we’re going to fund it,” King said.

Meanwhile, legislators pressed ahead with wildfire preparations on several other fronts.

The House Agriculture Committee advanced a bill for $10 million in wildfire-prevention grants to pay for local forest-thinning projects. All three Southwest Colorado legislators – Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango – are sponsors.

Also Wednesday, the House passed another Roberts bill, which would create a permanent committee of the Legislature for wildfire preparedness. The bill now goes to Hickenlooper to be signed into law.

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