Guv says little about firefighting air fleet

DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper was vague at best Thursday about what he would do, if anything, about an idea to create a state-owned air tanker fleet to battle forest fires.

A day after the Legislature ended the 2013 session, the Democratic governor said it would be nice to have more information about the idea, but stopped short of saying what he would order his Department of Public Safety to do to get that information.

Despite repeated questions from the media at a post-session press conference on the subject, Hickenlooper said he didn’t know how such a thing would be done, how it would be financed and how it would be different than what the state already does in attacking wildfires.

“This is a resource that doesn’t affect everybody in the state, that’s why certain things to find money for more narrow things is oftentimes harder,” he said. “Last year, certainly, we could have had 100 planes and it wouldn’t have been enough. That’s the real battle over the funding. Are you getting sufficient bang for your buck? It’s expensive.”

SB245, introduced by Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, was estimated to cost about $17 million just to get started. Though the Legislature approved the bill and sent it onto Hickenlooper’s desk earlier this week, it did not approve any money.

Still, King has repeatedly said it makes little sense to do nothing, particularly given that the federal government is doing little to restore its fleet.

But while Hickenlooper said the dwindling federal air tanker fleet “in all likelihood” was not satisfactory to battle forest fires throughout the West, he questioned whether it would be cost effective for the state to have its own planes.

He said getting an air tanker to a fire in its early stages would be helpful in dousing it, but not so much when a fire gets bigger and the wind begins to blow.

“We have to do a cost-benefit study,” the governor said. “How much more improvement do we get beyond our existing system, and what’s that costing? We need to get numbers to see what our capacity is with our existing resources and what the improvement would be.”

Hickenlooper, however, did not say if he planned to order his staff to do that cost-benefit analysis.


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