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A Fleet Of Our Own? Lawmakers Propose A Colorado Air Tanker Fleet

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At the height of the now contained Galena Fire, officials noted most air resources for fighting the fire were unavailable or out of service. 

Two Colorado State Senators are introducing a bill aimed at creating a Colorado wildfire air tanker fleet, in hopes critical air resources are never unavailable or delayed again.

As the first major wildfire of the year ravaged tinder dry grass and trees near Horsetooth Reservoir northwest of Fort Collins, Chief Tom DeMint of the Poudre Fire Authority was struggling to find the air support he needed. “You know, in March it’s a little tough because we’re trying to find resources available,” said DeMint. A U.S. Forest Service helicopter did make it to the scene within 48 hours.

While it seems the fire season in Colorado starts earlier and earlier, firefighting resources including important air tankers, are actually positioned elsewhere across the country this time of year.

The theory is that resources will be near areas with the greatest need. “Usually the resources are in areas that have fires in March; California, down in the southeast in the Florida, South Carolina area. So we have to find the resources where we can,” says DeMint.

Past Performance Indicator of Future Performance

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction says he’s not convinced the current U.S. Forest Service fleet can come to the aid of Colorado if needed.“You know they say that past performance is an indicator of future performance,” said King, one of the sponsors of the bill.

He estimates it would cost Colorado around $20 million to fund a state air tanker fleet, which would be managed by the Colorado Department of Public Safety. There’s been no official discussion about the number of tankers the state would purchase, but King says he’s envisioning a very capable fleet.

“Three air tankers, three command and control fixed wing airplanes and three or four helicopters stationed throughout the state during the fire season and I think we would be well on our way to having control of that situation, and control of the possibility of catastrophic wildfires,” said King.

National firefighting air resources like heavy air tankers and helicopters are spread strategically across the country by the U.S. Forest Service. Steve Segin, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center says it’s not effective having resources ready and waiting at times when fires are uncommon. “If we needed certain aircraft or certain capabilities there are some things available,” said Segin. “However this time of the year we just have less of those resources as we do in the middle of fire season, so May, June, July, August –that time frame.”

Right now, most of the nation’s air resources are preparing for the typical start of the fire season. “We don’t have a lot of fire activity, so the aircraft we do have available, or that are normally available throughout the fire season are off contract and down for maintenance or that type of thing,” says Segin.

Maintenance Critical For Year Round Coverage

Jennifer Jones, Fire and Aviation Spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Centerin Boise says air resources need to have staggered contracts and maintenance so there can be year-round coverage. “It is important for air tankers to be out of service for several months each year so that the maintenance and inspections can be done and that’s really critical to ensuring that they fly safely,” said Jones.

Jones says in addition to the nine air tankers on exclusive use contract to the U.S. Forest Service, 16 additional ‘private contract’ air tankers are on standby in case they’re needed. That brings the total air tanker fleet across the country to 25 planes. That’s still a far cry from the over 40 tankers the forest service had in use in the early 2000’s.

Because of the low number of all firefighting resources available including air tankers, Jones says often the Forest Service is maxed out. “It is not uncommon for all of our assets to be almost fully committed; whether we’re talking about fire fighters, engines, air tankers, or helicopters,” said Jones. “And during those periods of time we prioritize fires to where those that are threatening life, property, critical natural and cultural resource values receive the assets first.”

State Owned Fleets A Boon For U.S. Forest Service?

Senator King says he’s not yet reached out to any active member of the U.S. Forest Service about forming a Colorado air tanker fleet, but Jones says the Forest Service is helped by other state owned fleets.

“Other state partners in fire suppression such as the state of California and the state of Alaska already do have their own air tankers, and the U.S. Forest Service certainly benefits from that,” said King.

While the U.S. Forest Service and state Lawmakers grapple with increasing the number of firefighting air tankers, the threat of another destructive wildfire season looms. 1,330 fires burned across Colorado last year scorching 243,811 acres.

With officials saying drought conditions appear to be eerily similar to 2002, Colorado is poised for another long year of fires.

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