USA — Facing the prospect of a dangerous wildfire season made worse by a devastating drought, Colorado officials are thinking about spending millions of dollars to invest in a new fleet of firefighting air tankers.
A bipartisan proposal before the state Senate would give the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control the funds to buy or lease three firefighting helicopters this year, and to lease as many as four large aircraft to fight fires next year.
The bill, which would cost between $8 million and $12 million a year, would help the state protect critical watersheds on the dry Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. The Western Slope has been hammered for three years by drought and by a growing infestation of invasive beetles that kill trees. The insects are turning forests that might be able to survive fires into 40-foot-tall matchsticks.
The threat goes beyond forests, however. A massive fire can poison water supplies, a much bigger concern in the Rockies than almost anywhere else in the country. Snowmelt from those mountains flows down the Colorado River and provides water to tens of millions of people and hundreds of millions of acres.
Colorado has 4 million acres of dead trees, mostly on the Western Slope, surrounding our watersheds. Those are watersheds that supply water to 40 million people in six lower-basin states and the country of Mexico, state Sen. Steve King, one of the bills lead sponsors, said in an interview. The idea that we are one lightning strike, one arsonists match strike, one terrorists match strike away from a fire that could change the Western Slope of Colorado for generations to come is a huge concern for our state.
King, a Republican, is sponsoring the bill with state Senate President Morgan Carroll, a Democrat.
States have ramped up their own firefighting prevention capabilities as the number of federal resources have decline. The U.S. Forest Services fleet of firefighting tankers has dropped by three-quarters in the past two decades, even as the number of acres burned per year has skyrocketed.
In the 1980s, wildfires burned an average of nearly 3 million acres every year. Between 2003 and 2012, an average of 7.3 million acres burned per year. Colorado has experienced the two worst fires in the states history in the last two years – the Black Forest fire in 2013 and the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 burned a combined 32,000 acres of land.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has urged several Western states to build their own air fleet to fight wildfires.
King said the federal government, which owns millions of acres on the Western Slope, hasnt taken care of its own property, putting the onus on Colorado to prevent disastrous burns. He credited two Democratic U.S. senators from Colorado – Mark Udall and Michael Bennet – for inserting language into this years farm bill that allows the Forest Service to lease five additional C-130 tankers.
Our goal is to give the taxpayer the best value for their dollar and still protect their water, air, land and lives, King said. I think were still in the process of determining which is the most cost-effective way to do this.