King set on getting Colorado a fire fleet

DENVER — Sen. Steve King plans to try again to get the state to start its own firefighting air fleet.

On Friday, the Grand Junction Republican is to introduce a bill requiring the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to obtain four Lockheed C-130 Hercules planes and modify them to be able to drop slurry and fire retardants.

King said the state can get used planes that have been mothballed by the federal government because they’ve exceeded their lifespan for use by the U.S. military. While many of those planes are old, they still have many years of life and are ideal to be converted to firefighting uses, he said.

And best of all, they are free.

“California has 23 air tankers they didn’t pay a dollar for,” King said of that state’s firefighting air fleet. “It has worked for 40 years for CalFire.”

King said it would cost several millions dollars per plane to modify and maintain them, but those costs would be recouped over time, partly by contracting the planes to the federal government and neighboring states that would pay Colorado for their use.

Regardless, Senate Democrats who will control the bill’s fate still aren’t enamored with the idea.

They continue to follow Gov. John Hickenlooper’s lead, who has said having a state-owned fleet may not be the best way to handle the situation, but he is still talking to lawmakers and other states about the idea.

Senate Democrats said it would be too expensive, and should be handled regionally with other Western states.

“It’s not just about acquiring the planes, it’s about maintaining them and the workforce that flies the planes and repairs the planes and maintains the planes,” said Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk. “That is extremely expensive. California is a big state. It may make more sense for them to have their own fleet. We’re smaller, and it might make good sense to partner with Wyoming for example.”

King disputes all that, saying ultimately a Colorado firefighting air corps will pay for itself in about seven years. At the same time, it will go a long way toward protecting the state’s forests and watersheds for generations to come, he said.

The senator, who is in his final year in the Legislature because he’s running for Mesa County sheriff, said the governor doesn’t seem to want to see the public safety and economic impacts he believes his idea would bring.

For example, he said a Canada-based company that refits planes for firefighting use, the Coulson Group, is considering opening a division at the Grand Junction Regional Airport. That company already has a federal contract to retrofit seven C-130 Hercules firefighting planes for the U.S. Forest Service.

“I so wish two years ago, when I went to the governor, he would have just looked at this like an entrepreneur and not like a politician,” he said. “I really thought (Hickenlooper) would open his eyes and ears and mind to the idea that this is one area where the government can actually solve a critical problem. This is a clear and present danger, it is right in our face, and we tend to close our eyes to it.”


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