Fire fleet not seen as priority

Study advises thrifty strategy

A study released Friday about how Colorado should plan for battling future wildfires stopped short of recommending the state own its own aerial fleet.

That study, called for under a bill approved by the Legislature last year, said there are other, more crucial things the state should focus on before considering buying expensive tankers.

Still, the report didn’t rule them out altogether.

“Airplanes and helicopters are critical tools in managing wildfires, but aircraft alone cannot put them out,” Paul Cooke, director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, writes in the report to Gov. John Hickenlooper. “Fixed-wing air tankers and helicopters must be integrated with ground resources to contain wildfires. While the capabilities recommended by this report will improve overall response effectiveness, deficiencies in fire suppression capacity will remain.”

Sen. Steve King, who introduced the bill calling for the report and continues to push for a state-owned fleet, hailed the study as proof that more can be done to protect Colorado from potentially devastating fires.

“There are things there we can work with,” the Grand Junction Republican said. “This might not be exactly how I would do it, but that is compromise in order to obtain an overall goal of protecting our state and water from a catastrophic wildfire.”

Hickenlooper, who was in Grand Junction on Friday to speak at Club 20 about water issues, also praised Cooke for his report, saying it was necessary to gather factual data about the issue before moving headlong into an expensive proposition of maintaining an aerial fleet without knowing how effective it would be, and whether there are more crucial areas the state should concentrate on first.

He points to sections of the report that focus on early warning systems, and plans to attack fires when they first flare up.

Part of the problem with doing that, he said, is in knowing where those fires are.

“Having the small plane that’s stocked up on technology, which is radar, infrared, to get to those fires really quickly,” Hickenlooper said. “The moment you get a lightning strike, the moment you see smoke, you want to get someone out there.”

The High Park Fire that burned 259 homes near Fort Collins in 2012, for example, started as a lightning strike, but no one could find it until high winds sent it burning out of control, Hickenlooper said.

A plane equipped with equipment to spot it, rather than planes designed to put them out, would be more useful than a complete aerial fleet, at least as a start, he said.

As a result, the governor said he would encourage state lawmakers to approve funding for preventative measures, but stopped short of completely dismissing King’s approach.

King and Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, have introduced SB164 to lease or purchase several firefighting planes and helicopters.

“We should invest the money,” Hickenlooper said. “We would urge the Legislature to err on the side of prevention or even over-prevention, but we’re going to measure every one of these expenditures.”


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