News 5 Investigates

Apr 14, 2014 3:54 PM by Eric Ross

News 5 Investigates: Bill aims to create Colorado's own aerial firefighting fleet

UPDATE: Senate Bill 164 passes 4-3 through the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee. The bill moves to the Appropriation Committee.

Paul Cooke, Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control is calling for updated air tankers and helicopters to help our state battle future wildfires.

Right now, Cooke says first responders are using outdated planes and air tankers. This equipment not only puts the pilots who run them in harm's way, but may delay response times because of the technology on board.

The State is fully aware of these risks, yet no upgrades are being made, at least not yet.

Several lawmakers are now pushing for Colorado to get its own aerial firefighting fleet. With that would come major benefits, but not without a hefty price tag.

"Initial attack has always been the critical thing for aerial firefighting," former Forest Service Aviation Chief Tony Kern said. "We need to have local resources that you can deploy at any time across the 24-hour spectrum."

Kern is taking his years of experience to the state legislature, asking lawmakers and Governor John Hickenlooper to fund an aerial firefighting fleet dedicate solely to Colorado.

Air support was brought in for both the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, but neither the helicopters or planes were able to battle the blaze at night.

"The number one reason (for not fighting fires at night) was safety," Kern said. "These guys (pilots) are not flying with infrared goggles. They are not flying with high technology and so to keep the pilots safe, you have to fly during times where they can use their eyes."

Not being able to fight a fire as the sun goes down, is a major problem according to Paul Cooke, Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

"At night, relative humidity increases and our fires tend to lay down," Cooke said. "That's a perfect opportunity for us to go in and do aerial suppression."

A decade ago, there were 44 large air tankers ready for use across the nation. That number has dropped significantly over the years.

"Now we have 8," Kern said. "The natural question is why?"

As Kern explains, a lot of the air tankers were approaching their end-of-life cycle, and needed to be retired.

"They (the planes) were no longer airworthy," Kern said. "Wings were falling off and people were dying."

Since 2001, tanker crashes have killed 22 aviators. Six were killed in 2012 alone.

Just a few years ago, the U.S. Forest Service asked for $2.5 billion to buy two dozen new aircraft equipped with GPS mapping technology, infrared cameras and night vision goggles.

However, the request for this funding was denied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because at the time, there wasn't enough data to justify the cost.

With tight budgets on a national spectrum, Colorado aviation experts are looking into state funding to the tune of about $33 million.

"When you can operate around the clock with firefighting efforts, you can see where the value starts to add up with the taxpayer dollar," Kern said. "You are going to have air drops that are more effective and efficient."

Cooke is calling for four helicopters and four single engine tankers, which is double the number resources currently available to Colorado. He also wants exclusive use of two large tankers to help supplement federal resources. So far, the State's budget committee has made $20 million available to get this proposal started.

The Senate agricultural committee is expected to vote on Senate Bill 164 this week. This bill sets the stage for Colorado to get its own fleet.

If the committee approves the bill, it will then go through Senate appropriations before being passed onto the Senate floor.

If the bill passes all the way, there's still no set date as to how soon we will see additional resources available. We're told it could take anywhere from six months to a couple of years at the very latest.

Governor Hickenlooper has also voiced his support for Colorado to have its own firefighting fleet.



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