State buys wildfire spotting aircraft

The state is now the owner of two aircraft that it will use to spot and report wildfires, the Colorado Division of Fire Protection and Control announced Monday.

The division signed a contract with Centennial-based Sierra Nevada, Corp., a defense contractor that not only will supply the state with the planes, but also the maintenance and pilot services to operate them, said Paul Cooke, director of the division.

The first thing the company will do is outfit the planes with high-tech heat-sensing equipment similar to what it provides the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, which uses the same PC-12 turboprop planes to locate enemy combatants in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The purchase stems from a measure approved by the Colorado Legislature earlier this year to establish the state’s own aerial firefighting fleet, an effort pushed for two years by state Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. The two spotter planes are part of a new program designed to detect small fires before they become major ones, Cooke said.

That program also called for contracting for up to four firefighting helicopters, four single-engine air tankers and two large air tankers, all at a cost of about $19 million.

The two spotter planes and the infrared and other heat sensors they will be equipped with will cost the state about $9.5 million. The annual contract for operations and maintenance is about $2.5 million a year.

Cooke said the first of the two spotter planes will be operational by the end of the month, with the second one ready to go by the fall.

“These aircraft place Colorado in the forefront as a leader in the use of technology to manage wildfires and reduce their impact,” Cooke said. “These aircraft will fundamentally change the way wildfires are managed now and into the future.”


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