Colorado Republicans have a plan for wildfires

January 27, 2014 Updated: January 27, 2014 at 7:35 am
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DENVER - Republican lawmakers are pushing their ideas about needed legislation to help the state cope with wildfire risks.

Republican senators and representatives said at a news briefing last week that they endorse plans from their members to create a state-owned fleet of aircraft to respond to wildfires and a statewide communications system that works across multiple jurisdictions.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said Thursday that he is opposed to buying a fire fleet without further study, but did say he is supportive of efforts to create an interoperable communications system.

"I laugh a little bit at the pushback I am getting on this legislation," said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. "I believe this is a cost-effective way to have an air fleet in Colorado."

King said he will introduce a bill Monday that requires the state to buy four decommissioned C-130 aircraft from the U.S. government and work to retrofit those planes to fight fires in Colorado and possibly other states.

Additionally, the bill would call for the state to contract with two helicopters capable of carrying and dropping fire retardant for the 2014 summer wildfire season. A third helicopter would be used to help coordinate firefighting efforts.

"We have to protect our water and we are going to fight; we are going to fight wildfires in Colorado," he said.

A draft version of the bill to be introduced this week includes $9 million in funding from several state agencies for the contracts for the 2014 firefighting fleet. King said the actual cost would be somewhere between $5 million and $12 million depending on how severe the fire season is.

But no mention is in the draft of how the state would pay for retrofitting four C-130s.

King said planes are available at little to no cost from the federal government. During the 2013 legislative session the governor signed a bill, also sponsored by King, into law that created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps but failed to fund the bill. A fiscal note on the bill estimated it would cost about $17.4 million to acquire three air tankers and retrofit them for fighting fires and more than $7 million a year to operate the program after that.

King's new bill calls for a private company to be contracted to manage and run the air fleet and it specifically names some of the requirements for the contract.

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said there was money last year in the budget to fund the program.

It's somewhat of a reversal of political as usual talking points as Democrats said they were unwilling to dedicate funding to a long-term program without knowing how stable the economy would remain.

Lambert has introduced two bills this session that deal with wildfires. One is aimed at giving county sheriffs more authority during emergency events and the other deals with creating concurrent jurisdiction on federal land so the state can properly respond to fires in national forests. Both of those bills have been assigned to a committee where the minority party's bills typically don't get passed.

Lambert said Friday that he will also introduce a bill that deals with the governor's authority to reimburse counties for costs associated with recovering from natural disasters. Lambert said he has been working with the governor's office on the bill.

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