USA — When a Colorado wildfire rages out of control — as with the 16 fires last year that destroyed 647 homes and killed six people — authorities call the U.S. Forest Service for aerial support dropping slurry and water on the blaze.
“It’s not a matter of if, it is a matter of when,” said Sen. Cheri Jahn D-Wheat Ridge. “And when we make that phone call to the federal government, that we have a fire and we need assistance, you hope they can show up.”
Jahn and Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, plan to introduce a bill next week creating a state fleet of aircraft to fight fires.
In a perfect world, King said Colorado would have three air tankers, three command and control planes and three or four helicopters.
“We don’t have any of that,” he said. “What we have is 4 million acres of dead trees, dead biomass. We have hopefully the end of a very long drought. We have the 2012 fire season rolling right into the 2013 season.”
The lawmakers plan to introduce a bill detailing the program, which would leave about 40 days of the legislative session to address the issue.
The U.S. Forest Service has a fleet of tanker planes, privately owned and contracted by the agency, dating from the 1950s that respond to wildfires across the nation.
Jahn said that fleet has dwindled from 44 planes a decade ago to nine, leaving officials in fire-prone Western states wondering what happens when resources are tapped.
Calls to the Forest Service on Thursday were not immediately returned.
The authors of the bill are developing a budget for the project and a timeline for implementation. It’s urgent, though, they said, given a 2013 wildfire season that burst into flames before the first day of spring.
“We are one lighting strike, one careless match throw, one terrorist intentional match throw away from a catastrophic wildfire in Colorado,” King said. “God help us if that is in one of our watersheds.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection owns a fleet of 58 aircraft including 23 air tankers that can hold water or the red fire retardant known as slurry.
King said the California agency estimates the cost of the air program is $1.5 million a plane, per year, including pilots, fuel and slurry.
King wouldn’t estimate how many planes a smaller state like Colorado would need, but given his perfect-world scenario with nine aircraft it could run the state around $9 million a year, not including purchasing the planes.
King said the federal government might provide the aircraft to the state, which is what happened when California launched the program.
Leaders of both the Senate Democrats and Republicans support the bill. Both are from Colorado Springs and talked about watching the Waldo Canyon fire encroach on the city, where it destroyed 346 homes and killed two people.
“If we don’t get to them quickly, every fire has the potential to turn into a Waldo Canyon,” Senate Republican Leader Bill Cadman said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is attempting to address the issue, awarding a contract in June for seven modern tankers to help fight fires across the country. However, that contract has been mired in a squabble over how it was awarded and planes have yet to be delivered.
Another possible source for help is the C-130 fleet owned by the Department of Defense.
During the Waldo Canyon fire, two of the C-130s sat at the Peterson Air Force Base for 48 hours before jumping into action, joining the Forest Service tankers.
Officials are trying to change a law that allows military aircraft to assist only when all other resources have been expended. The change would mean the eight C-130s across the nation could be called into action sooner and more often.