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Working Together, Firefighting Air Resources Train For Fire Season

Nathan Heffel
A military helicopter practices a water drop near Chatfield Reservoir in Littleton Tuesday.

Flexing its firefighting air power, the Colorado National Guard and wildland firefighters are conducting aerial fire suppression training exercises at reservoirs across the Front Range. When preparing for the upcoming wildfire season nothing is being left to chance.

Heavy air tankers and helicopters don’t put out wildfires alone, though they do play a large role in containing blazes that scorch thousands of acres across Colorado each year. They also give firefighters on the ground critical time to protect structures and homes from destruction.

Dave Zader, with the Boulder Fire Department’s wildland fire division, says training firefighters and aviators from multiple agencies, each with different procedures and radio frequencies, is essential so everyone is on the same page.

“No one fire agency has enough firefighters to deal with fires all the time," said Zader. "So we share. And we move firefighters from Boulder and we’ll send a few to Montana and couple to Wyoming. We work in an interagency system.”

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
Dave Zader, right, of the Boulder Fire Department's wildland fire division, monitors water drop training near Chatfield Reservoir in Littleton Tuesday

Agencies train in helicopter water drop procedures individually every year. What's different now says Lt. Colonel Mitch Utterback with the Colorado National Guard, is they haven’t typically done it together.

Including the military, the training exercises have brought together the U.S. Forest service, the Bureau of Land Management, and local and state personnel.

“Previously there has not been a lot of interoperability between the military and those federal agencies. As a result of the fires in 2012 and 2013 we’ve worked more closely together,” Utterback said. “And as a direct result of last summer’s [2013] fire at Black Forest and the flood response in Boulder, Larimer and other counties; we’ve all decided we must practice – at a quiet time – so that everything is ironed out and we’re ready to respond rapidly and efficiently when the time comes.”

Firefighting helicopters were seen across Colorado during the High Park Fire. Based at the Fort Collins-Loveland airport, a sky-crane "snorkel" helicopter dropped 2,600 gallons per trip over the blaze. In 2012, during the Woodland Heights Fire in Estes Park U.S. Forest Service helicopters also played a vital role.

Typically the U.S. Forest Service takes the lead during wildfire season, directing air resources across the country and in Colorado placing planes and helicopters where they're needed most. When needed, the Forest Service calls upon the military for their resources.

A bill introduced in the state Legislature by Senator Steve King (R-Grand Junction) would add state owned helicopters and planes into the firefighting mix alongside federal and military resources. King says if passed his legislation would fund the lease or contracting by the state of three firefighting helicopters in 2014, and up to four large air tankers in 2015.

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