Colorado Works to Fight Fires Really Early

May 13, 2014

Colorado is embarking on a new aerial strategy to detect and snuff wildfires while they are small — the state's latest attempt to reduce danger to people and destruction of watersheds.

Flanked by lawmakers and emergency responders in an airport hangar, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed three bills into law, including one devoting $20 milllion to line up two firefighting airplanes and four helicopters.

The planes are to be packed with instruments and positioned near hot, dry areas where fire risk is greatest in order to spot wildfires as they first break out and to map terrain. The choppers would drop water on flames.

"Getting to these fires early makes all the difference in the world," Hickenlooper said.

But rather than firefighting acumen, it is the weather — in the form of a heavy snowpack — that has state officials hoping for and federal forecasters predicting a less-than-calamitous summer. Only southwestern Colorado, bypassed by weekend snow, remains parched, with significant wildfire potential.

The likelihood of wildfires "really depends on what happens with moisture during the summer," said Paul Cooke, director of Colorado's Division of Fire Prevention and Control. "You'll get the spring green-up, and then it will dry out and become the light fuels that are easy to ignite in the late summer months."

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