USA — A year ago this month, the Galena fire ignited in the foothills west of Fort Collins, beginning what would be one of the longest and most destructive wildfire seasons in Colorado history.
Around the time it torched more than 1,300 acres in Larimer County, lawmakers at the Capitol debated whether to fund the state’s own air fleet.
“And a year later, we still don’t have a funded air fleet,” Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said in a recent interview.
King helped champion a 2013 measure that allowed the state to create its own aerial firefighting fleet, though the bill was amended to make its funding estimated at $20 million discretionary, rather than mandatory, which has left the concept so far with no money.
The Western Slope lawmaker wants to present a measure to fund a state air fleet, but has been stalled as lawmakers ponder how federal legislation can help the state better fight wildfires and await a report from the state’s top fire chief that isn’t due until April 1.
King, who is running for sheriff of Mesa County, wants to present his bill sooner rather than later because he says costs can possibly be mapped out in the state budget that Joint Budget Committee members are working on now.
“We’re now making some slow progress in all of this,” King said, noting the issue is likely to continue on until May when the session nears its end.
King said the slow progress is frustrating as Colorado endures longer and more destructive wildfire seasons.
In late January, King and a handful of GOP colleagues held a news conference to outline proposed legislation in which the state in 2015 would obtain four decommissioned C-130s at no cost from the federal government. The measure would also pay a contractor for the initial retrofit, operation and maintenance of the firefighting aircraft. Moreover, under King’s proposal, in 2014 the state would spend $9 million for a contract to fund three helicopters.
The legislation is being held up as lawmakers wait for a review from Paul L. Cooke, director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, on whether Colorado could benefit from having its own aerial fleet.
Cooke declined to offer any details of the report.
Democratic Senate leadership also sees an amendment from Colorado’s two U.S. senators in the recently passed farm bill, which allows the U.S. Forest Service to lease up to five modern air tankers to combat wildfires, as a potential way to offset costs for a state fleet.
The federal government currently has fewer than a dozen air tankers to fight wildfires.
King, who has battled Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper over the proposed funding and the idea of a fleet, said he would not present his legislation until Cooke makes public his report and the governor has pored over it.
Earlier this year, Hickenlooper did not offer support to King’s proposal, and has said a shared fleet among Western states is ideal, though few plans from the group have been brought to fruition.
With funding for Colorado’s own air fleet in doubt, King will travel to Sacramento, Calif., in April with a House and Senate resolution to ask its legislature to look at changing laws so that California’s air fleet can help fight fires here. To date, California is the only state to fund and operate its own aerial fleet.
“If it impacts their water supply, they might have a serious interest in helping fight fires in Colorado,” King said.
Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said it’s crucial to wait on Cooke’s report so that lawmakers know what the state’s top fire chief recommends.
“Legislation will get introduced,” Carroll said. “And we want it to reflect what is outlined in the report from the division of fire.”
King’s bipartisan bill last year estimated it would cost Colorado about $20 million annually to support a fleet of aircraft which would be paid for through a mix of public and private funds, advertising and a new state lottery game.
The fleet would have included a mix of large air tankers and helicopters and without state funding the bill was signed into law by the governor, weeks before the fast-moving Black Forest fire torched nearly 500 homes.