Colorado’s own fleet of firefighting aircraft gets budget approval

Colorado’s own fleet of firefighting aircraft gets budget approval

16 April 2014

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USA — Lawmakers are setting aside nearly $20 million to pay for the state’s own firefighting fleet in the aftermath of historic wildfire seasons.

The decision came after the head of the governor’s Division of Fire Prevention released a report analyzing recent wildfire fighting efforts in Colorado.

The divison head, Paul Cooke, recommended purchasing two planes with scanning and processing, and purchasing or exclusively contacting four helicopters, two single engine tankers and two large tankers.

In Cooke’s report he said it is vital to bring in more technology and aerial resources in order to attack small fires before they become big threats.

Firefighters who have been on the front lines during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires agree that more resources closer to home will change the way they fight these fires.

They say the difficulty is that even MAFFs that are stationed in Colorado Springs, are commissioned all around the country during any given time. So when a fire breaks out in our state, they aren’t always readily available.

“A plane may be in Boise, so we have flight time from Boise, they have to come here, fill up and then they can come to our scene,” Captain Justin White with one of CSFD’s Wildland Fire teams explained.

Last year, Colorado spent $48 million fighting fires, while relying on air support from the Feds.

“If we had had the appropriate air support, would Black Forest have been the fire that it turned into?,” Sen. Steve King, (R-Grand Junction) said.

Sen. King was the one to request the fire prevention report that inspired this allocation. It’s an addition that makes wildland teams proud.

“This will provide us opportunities to have those resources here in Colorado, and cut those response times to maybe a half hour, which could impact our initial attack quite a bit,” Capt. White said.

The report recommends the state purchases planes with scanning and processing technology. It says it will especially help in terrain like Waldo Canyon, when it took at least 17 hours from the first report of smoke until they found the location of the fire.

“We didn’t know exactly where that fire was off the bat, so with that technology we could have got a latitude and longitude and sent forces right to it,” White explained.

The report said a remote sensing aircraft in Colorado’s fleet would have detailed information to the incident commander within 1 hour of a report of smoke.

It added, “The fire would be located and mapped, and this information would be loaded in real time to the state’s information management system. Within an hour of the first report of smoke, the local incident commander would have access to a map of the fire, ingress and egress paths, fuels involved, fire behavior, values at risk, weather forecast, and other data needed to make informed decisions regarding the appropriate management response.”

Captain White said that is what could make all the difference.

“It means a lot, because we can call the resources we need in a timely manner, so we can keep that fire small. It’s right here in our home state, and here it comes, and we’re ready to make an impact right away,” he said.

Once Governer Hickenlooper signs the budget, we will be the second state with its own firefighting fleet.

California has been building up a private fleet since the 1950’s.

Initial estimates show the planes would take at least a few months, and at most a year or two to be fully secured.

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