11 Guard aircraft on way to Iraq, leaving some worry behind
Even as Colorado is facing a dangerous wildfire season, 11 of the 12 large Colorado National Guard helicopters that can be used for backup firefighting are on their way to Iraq.
Their departure comes on top of problems with the nation’s fleet of heavy planes used to drop slurry on leaping flames. Only 16 of the country’s 46 heavy air tankers are flying this year following a series of crashes and maintenance problems.
The Guard has sent its huge double-rotor Chinooks and medium- sized Black Hawks to Texas, where crews are training for a deployment that will keep them away from Colorado for this fire season and the next.
The departed helicopters could carry nearly 17,000 gallons altogether and fly rapidly to forest fires from their base in Aurora.
With the remaining planes and helicopters under its control, the state now can deliver two-thirds less water and foam than last year.
Still, Colorado is also protected by aircraft under federal control, and forest officials say they have enough aerial power to serve the state this year.
Others disagree, however, saying federal aircraft can be sent out of state at any time.
The number and location of firefighting helicopters and planes is considered critical for tens of thousands of people living in the desperately parched Front Range, and for the equally dry southern third of the state.
Many of those locations have seen little rain since October, so prospects are high for multiple, simultaneous wildfires. Already, more of Colorado has burned this year than last, and Colorado Springs is warning residents that hundreds of homes could be lost in hours.
Aircraft are a crucial part of the firefighting arsenal. A plane or helicopter based near a fire can douse flames within the critical first minutes or hours, before a tiny fire can explode into a monster blaze.
But even though the big Guard helicopters are headed to Iraq, officials say enough aircraft remain.
They count three single-engine planes under contract by the state, backed up by four remaining Colorado National Guard helicopters; six to seven aircraft leased by the federal government that will start the summer based in Colorado; and federal air tankers that move in and out of the state, according to the need.
Officials say they can order more resources from the federal fleet or the military when fire breaks out.
This “huge armada” of 500 helicopters and 100 single-engine planes is “on call to come where the need is greatest,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Maxwell.
“We’re pretty fluid in terms of moving aircraft into the state,” said Kent Hamilton, who tracks aerial firefighting in Colorado for the federal government. At 300 mph, a heavy plane tanker can fly in from New Mexico in two hours.
But state Sen. Tom Wiens says that every one of the federal aircraft now in the state might be called upon to fight fires outside of Colorado.
For example, one 2,000-gallon tanker plane based in Grand Junction left Colorado a month ago to help with fires in the Southwest. One such plane returned in late May to work a fire near Durango.
On Friday, three were in the state – two in Grand Junction and one in Durango.
Jim Lawson, who runs the federal helicopter crew based in Monument, said his team was out of state for half of their 120 days on duty last year.
Wiens says such transfers could leave Colorado with only the three small planes leased by the state government, backed up by what’s left of the National Guard helicopter fleet.
The Guard said that’s one Black Hawk with 660 gallons of capacity and three small Hueys at 324 gallons each. Their actual availability varies with maintenance schedules, however.
Wiens says that’s not enough, considering that pine needles crunch at the touch on both dead and live trees for hundreds of miles.
“I think given the fuel conditions, those resources are woefully inadequate,” said Wiens, a Douglas County Republican who watched 200 square miles of his district burn up in the disastrous Hayman Fire in 2002.
Wiens wants an aerial assault on fires within an hour. The state House of Representatives agrees, and in 2004 passed a resolution calling for such a standard in Colorado.
Rich Homann, wildland fire chief for the Colorado State Forest Service, says the three small planes under state contract are enough, given current fire expectations.
“The entire state will not burn at one time,” he said. “It’s not reasonable to gear up for worst-case scenarios all the time.”
Air attacks can save areas
Aerial attacks on wildfires can make the difference in saving a mountain community.
The 800 gallons dropped by a small plane or medium-sized helicopter “is three or four firetruck- loads of water,” said Justin Dombrowski, Boulder’s wildland fire coordinator.
Last summer, a Colorado National Guard Chinook and a Black Hawk were among 15 aircraft that helped save the town of Beulah from destruction by a wildfire southwest of Pueblo.
But aerial attacks on wildfires are complicated by laws requiring officials to use every possible privately contracted aircraft before seeking military help – unless life and property are threatened.
That caused a major delay in calling in the military during the massive Hayman Fire.
Just a few minutes’ flight away, two of eight C-130 firefighting planes sat on the tarmac in Colorado Springs while crew members with threatened homes watched the smoke, said Lt. Col. Clancy Preston of the 302nd Wing of the Air Force Reserve.
The two C-130s and their 3,000-gallon payloads weren’t called until June 14, she said.
That was six days into the fire, after it already had blackened a swath 20 miles long.
Local budgets less of a worry
The good news in Colorado is that local fire chiefs and sheriffs can now call out firefighting aircraft or a hand crew for a quick initial attack without worrying about paying for it out of local budgets. That’s especially important for small, volunteer fire departments.
Wiens and then-state Sen. John Evans, R-Parker, sponsored a law passed in 2004 that guarantees state payment for the first airplane attack on a wildfire or the first hour of a helicopter.
Another law, new this year, provides for state payment for the first hand crew.
That bill also raises the state firefighting fund from $2.35 million this year to $3.25 million for the fiscal year starting July 1. Officials hope they won’t need it until next spring.
To Wiens, those amounts make it clear the size of the state’s three- plane fleet “is not for lack of money.”
Homann said he will lease more firefighting aircraft if the wildfire season demands it.
“If we need more, we have the ability to get more – if someone else doesn’t have them under contract,” he said.
That will depend on the ferocity of this fire season across the arid West.
State aircraft tied to Colorado:
3 single-engine planes, 800-gallon capacity each – 1 each at Jefferson County Airport and Cañon City, and 1 more due this month.
1 Black Hawk helicopter, 660 gallons, and 3 Huey helicopters, 324 gallons, serve as National Guard backup based at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora.
Federal aircraft, based in Colorado, but could move:
1 single-engine plane, 800 gallons, now at Grand Junction.
5 helicopters, 100-350 gallons – 1 each at Monument and Rifle, 3 at Durango.
1 Sikorsky Sky Crane helicopter, 2,000 gallons; first set for Jefferson County Airport, now only possible.
1 tanker plane, 2,000 gallons, left Grand Junction for fires out of state; 3 back in Grand Junction and Durango.
What’s gone from Colorado:
4 Chinook helicopters, 3,000 gallons, and 7 Black Hawk helicopters, 660 gallons, all en route to Iraq.