Fire fleet is closer to reality
Legislature poised to budget $21 million
The Colorado Legislature is close to coming up with a substantial amount of money to fund Sen. Steve King’s proposed aerial firefighting fleet.
Lawmakers in the Colorado Senate are considering various ways to find about $21 million to fund at least part of the Grand Junction Republican’s idea to create a state-owned fleet, not only to battle forest fires in the state but also to help prevent them from becoming major events.
All that thanks to a report that King got the Legislature to approve last year studying the concept.
Today, the Colorado Senate is to give final approval to next year’s proposed $23 billion spending plan that would include money for the idea.
“(Legislative) leadership is making tough decisions about priorities and the needs of our state, and then having the courage and resolve to follow your convictions,” King said Thursday when lawmakers gave preliminary approval to spend the money. “Wildfire is a threat to 40 million Americans who depend on the life-sustaining substance called Colorado water. Wildfire is a clear and present danger to the Colorado economy, infrastructure, tourism, agriculture and quality of life that the state is known for.”
King and Senate President Morgan Carroll, the Aurora Democrat who is co-sponsoring a bill with King to lease or purchase the first of those aircraft, also co-sponsored the amendment to the budget bill to pay for them.
The amendment currently calls for taking the money from excess reserves and a planned upgrade of the Colorado Benefits Management System, a computer program that helps determine eligibility for such state benefits as food stamps and medical assistance.
But because several Democratic senators balked at the idea of taking money away from that planned upgrade, Carroll said it would only be a “placeholder” in the budget until a better funding source could be identified.
Henry Sobanet, head of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, said he, Carroll and King agreed to do it that way for now until a more permanent funding source could be found, some of which likely would come from emergency funds already earmarked to fight this year’s fires.
“We’re working on that arrangement with legislators now,” Sobanet said. “But I believe we’re going to see a little over $20 million going to wildfire resources, early detection and other things like that.”
The report that King’s bill from last year called for, which was released on Friday, recommended spending up to $33.6 million this year, only some of which would go to aircraft designed solely to put out fires.
Most of the money the state would spend now would go toward a wildfire management system, at a cost of about $100,000, and two multi-mission fixed wing aircraft, the primary use of which would be to locate fires while in their infancy so they can be extinguished with existing equipment before those blazes get out of hand.
That’s consistent with the overall report released by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, which focused on early detection.
That 103-page report said that while the state could use its own aerial firefighting fleet, what it needs first are more effective ways to locate small fires before they become larger ones. While it recommended against purchasing large firefighting air tankers, the report did suggest the state could make good use of spotter planes that it would own and operate, and firefighting helicopters.
King and Carroll said spending money on an aerial fleet would mean cost savings on fire suppression, and the devastating losses in lives, property and economic development that can result from major wildfires.
“We know that this is not a question of if, but when,” Carroll said. “It’s not if we have another catastrophic fire, it’s when, it’s how many, how bad, how damaging. This is an investment in protecting Colorado’s water, Colorado lives, Colorado homes, property, wildlife and natural spaces, and the lives and safety of firefighters on the ground.”
The money that was earmarked for the aerial fleet is tied to SB164, a bill sponsored by King and Carroll that calls for purchasing actual aircraft.
That measure is scheduled to be debated by the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy Committee on Thursday.
Alan Salazar, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief strategy officer, said King’s measure from last year already gives the state the authority to lease or purchase firefighting aircraft, adding he’s not certain new legislation is needed. “I think we can get by without passing the bill based on the authority we have (from King’s 2013 measure) ... but if the Legislature wants to pass this bill to emphasize how important it is, I’m not going to argue,” Salazar said.
He said this year’s bill also calls for leasing or purchasing planes the state isn’t yet ready to look at, adding that it could be amended to focus on purchasing the planes it does want, such as the early detection spotter planes.
In a trip to Grand Junction last week on the same day the report came out, Hickenlooper said one of those planes likely would be based at Grand Junction Regional Airport.