Senators: State needs its own air-tanker fleet

Bipartisan effort under way to buy, maintain aerial firefighting force

DENVER — Fearful that Colorado will one day face even more devastating forest fires than the ones the state has already seen in recent years, Sen. Steve King and a handful of other legislators want the state to get its own aerial firefighting fleet.

To do that, the Grand Junction Republican teamed up with a Jefferson County Democrat to draft a bill calling on the Colorado Department of Public Safety to purchase and equip its own fleet of air tankers. They expect to introduce that bill into the Colorado Legislature sometime next week.

His greatest hurdle will be to persuade his colleagues to come up with enough funding to at least start the effort, which could cost millions of dollars.

It’s not just the planes, but maintenance and upkeep, not to mention staffing the pilots to fly them, King said.

“What we have is four million acres of dead trees, dead grass, we have a very long drought and we have the 2012 fire season rolling right in to the 2013 fire season,” King said. “We are one lightning strike, one careless match thrown, one terrorist intentional match thrown away from a catastrophic wildfire in Colorado.”

King and Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, are modeling their measure after the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as CAL FIRE.

That agency, created in the 1990s, operates on a $1 billion annual budget. It employs nearly 5,000 full-time people, more than 3,000 seasonal firefighters and thousands of volunteers. It also owns 23 air tankers, 14 air tactic aircraft and 11 helicopters, not to mention the more than 200 fire trucks, bulldozers and other ground vehicles it has.

The two lawmakers, along with Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said the state no longer can rely on a limited and aging federal fleet of air tankers to protect its forests.

The four said the state needs more than just its own aerial fleet, but a better system of spotting fires when they are small and putting them out before they become a danger.

“We know that our fires need to be knocked out quicker ... and aerial tankers would help us do just that,” Morse said. “We owe it to our firefighters who work very hard day in and day out even when the fires aren’t this big to make sure they have every tool to do their jobs.”



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