Colorado could better fight wildfires if the state had its own fleet and didn't have to wait for aging federal tankers to be dispatched, says a bipartisan pair of lawmakers drafting legislation.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, want Colorado to join California as the only states in the country to have their own air arsenal to fight wildfires. Last year, fires charred hundreds of thousands of acres, burned nearly 700 homes and killed six people. Both lawmakers represent areas ravaged by wildfires in 2012.
The proposal comes just as firefighters logged 90 percent containment of the 1,400-acre Galena Fire in the foothills west of Fort Collins.
"It's mid-March, and it's clear with the dry weather and winds that wildfire season has begun," said King, who has not yet introduced the legislation. "Colorado has to take charge of its own destiny on this front."
The state counts on a fleet of U.S. Forest Service aircraft that, in the past decade, has grown significantly smaller and can be stationed in other states several hours away. The closest tanker to Colorado this weekend was in Missoula, Mont.
During the Waldo Canyon fire last year — the most destructive fire in the state's history in terms of insured losses — four C-130 tankers dumped fire retardant over the burn area west of Colorado Springs. There are only eight large fire-equipped tankers in the Forest Service fleet, down from more than 40 in 2002.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, about 1,330 fires consumed 243,811 acres in Colorado last year, as fires raged in Western states from New Mexico to Washington, which were also in need of Forest Service air support.
California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a fleet of nearly 50 air tankers and helicopters that can be used to battle wildfires. Also known as Cal Fire, it receives about $600 million annually from the state's general fund.
King estimates it would cost Colorado about $20 million a year, which would be paid for through a mix of public and private funds, advertising and a new state lottery game. The fleet, says King, would consist of small full-time staff of professional aerial firefighters.
The size and scope of the aircraft have not been hashed out, though King said it would be identified by Colorado's Department of Public Safety.
"If you look at what we spent last year fighting fires — which was $48 million — I think this a proactive way of reducing the costs," King said.
Fighting the Waldo Canyon and Lower North Fork fires cost a combined $11.5 million, but the most expensive fire was the 87,284-acre High Park fire, which cost $25.1 million, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
In Washington, D.C., U.S. Sen. Mark Udall has pressed the need to modernize the Forest Service air tanker fleet.
A spokesman from Udall's office said he has questioned maintenance costs for a local fleet and how the crafts' use might be coordinated with that of Forest Service planes.
"We're always one lightning strike, one careless match being thrown, one terrorist attack away from a catastrophic wild fire," King said.
Kurtis Lee: 303-954-1655, email@example.com or twitter.com/kurtisalee