Bill jumps gun on Colorado wildfire fleet

Bill jumps gun on Colorado wildfire fleet

27 January 2014

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USA — A bill that would allow the state to acquire aircraft to be used for fighting fires is well intentioned but shouldn’t go forward until after fire and public safety experts complete a feasibility study that is due in April.

We appreciate the bold initiative by Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, but believe he is jumping the gun.

As we’ve said before, it is worth the time and effort to figure out whether a state air firefighting fleet could make a difference before committing funds to such an ambitious project.

Last year, Senate Bill 245 created the Colorado firefighting air corps, but lawmakers didn’t approve the $20 million to fund the program that has been effectively frozen without any aircraft.

Under the new bill, the state would spend $9 million to contract for three helicopters this year and would acquire four decommissioned C-130 aircraft from the U.S. government in 2015 that would be retrofitted to fight fires.

A draft of the bill didn’t include cost estimates for the planes.

Ultimately, Colorado could go the way of California and an air fleet may be necessary. The federal resources every year are increasingly stretched thin, and Colorado’s fires are getting worse.

With more people moving into the fire-prone areas, the state needs to take additional steps.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s wildfire task force last year offered a series of recommendations for how the state should deal with Colorado’s wildfire issues, putting more responsibility on homeowners who move to risky areas.

Lawmakers, however, haven’t taken up the task force’s recommendation to assess fees on homes in those fire-prone areas.

California’s aerial firefighting program has 23 air tankers, 11 helicopters and 14 tactical aircraft. From 13 air attack and nine helitack bases located statewide, aircraft can reach most fires within 20 minutes. The program also has an annual budget of $43 million.

We understand the urgency to be prepared and are concerned that a feasibility study is due just as wildfire season begins.

But committing to planes and helicopters is too much now without understanding what is needed and how much it could cost.

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