Colorado Wants Its Own Aerial Firefighters to Combat Wildfires

Most states rely on federal crews to fight fires from the air. But with those resources often stretched, Colorado wants to become the second state to respond to such emergencies on their own.
by | April 19, 2013 AT 5:30 AM
A slurry bomber attacks the Dome Fire outside of Boulder, Colorado on October 29, 2010. (Photo: Flickr CC/AtmosNews - NCAR & UCAR)

The next time wildfires threaten hundreds of thousands of acres in the Colorado wilderness, as they did in 2012, state officials don’t plan to wait for the federal government to show up with helicopters and airborne water tankers to put it out. They want to be ready to handle the situation themselves.

Legislation is moving through the state legislature that would create the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, which would make Colorado the second state with its own flying firefighting brigade to respond to such emergencies. (The other is California.) The Colorado bill unanimously cleared the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee last week and has now moved to the Appropriations Committee.

It is a proposal borne out of the state’s experience last year with summer wildfires that burned through more than 200,000 acres, forced at least 34,500 people to evacuate their homes and killed five. At the time, Colorado, like most states, relied on the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires from the air. But the federal government has only nine air tankers available for the entire country, and the nationwide drought in 2012 stretched its fleet to the limit. As fires raged in Colorado starting last June, federal resources also had to contend with blazes in Idaho, Oklahoma, Washington and Wyoming.

The federal aerial corps’ inability to fully respond to Colorado’s emergency likely contributed to the length and severity the state’s fires, which lasted through August and destroyed more than 600 homes, says Tom Eversole, executive director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association, which represents private contractors in the field.

“The tankers that they needed weren't available at the time they needed them,” Eversole says. “If you get the tankers on attack at the early stages, you can contain these fires. But those that don't get contained can get out of control so fast. I can certainly see their point.”

The problem likely isn't going anywhere either: If global temperatures continue to rise, the total burned land area in the western United States is expected to double over the next century, according to the National Wildlife Foundation.

California's aerial firefighting unit, known as CAL FIRE, developed throughout the first half of the 20th century as the state sought to protect its forests and respond to emergencies. It operates a fleet of 23 1,200-gallon air tankers, 11 helicopters and 14 tactical airplanes, with a proposed budget of $1.1 billion for FY 2013-2014. Most of its equipment is loaned from the Federal Excess Personal Property Program, a Forest Service program that rents available federal resources to state authorities, a model that Colorado intends to follow.

Under the proposed bill, Colorado would acquire three large air tankers and three tactical airplanes, which conduct surveillance and transport resources, according to a state legislative analysis. In the first two years, the state would hire six full-time staff to oversee the corps. Altogether, the legislative fiscal office estimates the program's initial price tag at $17.5 million, with annual operating costs around $7.5 million once the corps is fully operational.

It's an expense worth paying for, say some lawmakers. “Wildfires are a fact of life in Colorado; it is not a matter of if, but when,” Sen. Cheri Jahn, one of the legislation’s co-sponsors, said in a statement last week after the bill cleared its first committee. “We need to be able to respond when they flare up without having to wait on the federal government, hoping they have resources to spare.”