Aerial firefighting bill gets changes, will re-emerge Monday

April 10, 2014 Updated: April 10, 2014 at 7:10 pm
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A C-130 owned by Coulson Aircrane Ltd. starts its engines Wednesday, March 26, 2014, before dropping a 3,500-gallon load of water over Centennial Airport. Colorado State Sen. Steve King held press conference at the airport to promote his bill that would create a $8-$12 million Colorado Air Firefighting Fleet. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

DENVER - A bill that would launch a Colorado owned and operated aerial firefighting fleet hit some turbulance Thursday in the Senate agricultural committee and was held over until next week.

Senate Bill 164, introduced by Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, underwent substantial changes from the version that was first introduced, and lawmakers on the committee wanted more time to consider a new analysis of what it will cost the state.

The state's budget committee has worked to set aside about $20 million for helicopters and small fixed-wing planes that can be equipped with fire sensing and mapping technology. The bill also proposes entering into call-when-needed contracts with large air tankers - the kind that drop large loads of slurry on wildfires - rather than procuring tankers specifically for Colorado.

All indications are that the bill has the support needed to pass the House and the Senate, and the governor's office has indicated it too supports the bill as amended. The committee will vote on the bill Monday, and it is expected to move quickly through Senate appropriations and onto the Senate floor.

King and Carroll said the bill is an important step toward preventing catastrophic wildfires like the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said that planes with fire sensing technology can be sent out after lightening storms to spot fires in their infancy. Now Cooke said spotters who go out after storms rely on spotting smoke.

"We're actually talking about tools that will give fire commanders on the ground information about whether they should fight a fire or not," Cooke said.

That information will include the exact location and size of a fire and also what direction and how quickly the fire is moving.

Cooke said maps will indicate access roads and existing structures, and eventually would be capable of tracking individual firefighter positions and fire trucks too.

The new goal for his agency - with new technology in hand - would be to limit 98 percent of wildfires that threaten homes or lives to 100 acres or less. And those fires that occur in the wildland urban interface - the area where urban housing meets forest - would be limited to 10 acres.

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, asked for more time Thursday to analyze the fiscal note and what specifically the bill is asking for. She was critical of $1 million that would be spent on a center of excellence that would study best practices in firefighting technology.

"If I had $1 million, I would put it into fuel mitigation," Schwartz said. "We have 46 million acres of dead trees."

Contact Megan Schrader


Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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