USA — Most of the Colorado National Guard’s 12 firefighting helicopters will be in Iraq during next summer’s forest fire season.
“Next fire season will be a challenge for us,” Maj. Gen. Mason Whitney, adjutant general of Colorado’s Guard, told the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday. He said it is possible that the helicopters’ 18-month deployment will keep them out of the state for the 2007 fire season as well.
Rich Homann, fire supervisor for the Colorado State Forest Service, said the state has other aircraft available for firefighting and can manage without the Guard’s helicopters.
But at least two National Guard helicopters were among nine used to scoop water from cattle ponds to help prevent the approaching Mason Gulch Fire from burning the town of Beulah last summer. That fire forced the evacuation of 5,000 people and burned 11,300 acres.
Whitney said the precise number of the Guard’s heavy-lifting Black Hawk and Chinook CH-47 helicopters being sent to Iraq will remain classified until shortly before they depart.
But he did say “most” of the eight Black Hawk UH-60s and four Chinook CH-47s now at Buckley Air Force Base would be leaving for Iraq for 18 months.
However, the Guard expects to gain another three Black Hawks next year for a medical unit and they will be capable of fighting fires, Whitney said.
Homann said Colorado firefighters have access to air tankers and helicopters through federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service.
The state also has single-engine air tankers on contract, which he said can carry about 600 gallons of fire retardant, a third to half as much as a multi-engine tanker. Contracts are executed as fires start, he said.
In the fire near Beulah, a giant twin-engine Chinook from the National Guard carried 2,000 gallons of water for bucket drops, and a smaller Black Hawk carried 600 gallons, officials said at the time.
Homann said the National Guard helicopters are called in when a fire threatens life and property and no private contractors are available.
He said the state’s firefighting plan lists the National Guard helicopters as a resource “to use as needed and as available.”
“Fire preparedness is a pretty fluid business,” he said.