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Colorado Springs among six candidates for fire research center

February 12, 2015 Updated: February 12, 2015 at 10:23 am
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Colorado Springs is one of six locations vying for a fire research center that will become the technological home of the state's new firefighting air fleet.

Requirements for the Center for Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting include a local university, varied fire-prone terrain and an airport equipped to handle large aircraft for firefighting - all of which Colorado Springs can offer, according to a proposal from the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

Advocates for Colorado Springs believe the area's extensive military presence and its 28,800 acres of wildfire-prone landscape will set it apart from competitors for the center. In its proposal submitted last week, the business alliance urged state officials to also consider offers for temporary free office space, convention centers, engineers and miles of research terrain that would be at their disposal.

Experts say the center could become a national hub for tech-savvy firefighting and could bring hundreds of jobs to the city it calls home. It could be an economic boon to Colorado Springs, drawing even more attention to a city that has a history of catastrophic wildfire. For local officials and proponents of the pitch, Colorado Springs "has it all."

"I think we have the strongest combination of all the major factors they are looking for in location," said Andy Merritt, chief defense industry officer with the business alliance.

In January, the state asked for nonbinding proposals explaining why a location would be a good fit for the Center for Excellence, which was created in 2014 along with the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps. Colorado Springs, Centennial, Clear Creek County, the Fort Collins-Loveland Airport, Rifle and Jefferson County all met the Feb. 6 deadline with their pitches.

Colorado Springs and Denver have the only airports in the state that are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to land planes of any size or weight. Colorado Springs has military contractors, engineers and fire expertise, but the business alliance believes the city's airport sets it apart from the other five proposals.

The Center for Excellence will have at least eight full-time positions and focus on researching wildfire prevention in Colorado. It would also be responsible for processing information transmitted from Colorado's firefighting planes, some of which can send fire images within minutes to crews on the ground.

Colorado Springs' steepest competition likely is the Fort Collins-Loveland area, home to many fire researchers at Colorado State University, and Centennial, which houses the state's fleet of firefighting aircraft, said Tony Kern, a former assistant director of fire aviation and management for the U.S. Forest Service.

Fort Collins is a nexus of several federal and state land management agencies, including the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, which does extensive fire research. The city is near a massive burn scar from the 2012 High Park fire, which destroyed at least 259 homes in the western foothills.

Centennial is close to several universities, is the staging area for the state's new fire-detection aircraft and would be a central location - an attribute it shares with Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs is home to several academic programs geared toward fire research, including programs at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy, according to the business alliance proposal.

Peterson Air Force Base houses military aircraft often used for firefighting and the city's airport can handle any plane in the Forest Service fleet, said Heather Lenard, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Airport.

Colorado Springs also has available office space, Merritt said. The proposal offered three spaces - the airport, the Catalyst Campus near downtown and vacant county offices on West Costilla Street - that the state could temporarily use at no cost.

El Paso County officials have been told that a final decision could be made by the end of February. The center is expected to be operational and staffed by August, interim director Melissa Lineberger said.

The Colorado Springs proposal was the only one submitted on behalf of an industry advocacy group; the others came from an airport or municipality. The business alliance was chosen to make the pitch because so many partners wanted to be involved, Merritt said. The pitch has the backing of El Paso and Elbert counties and the Colorado Springs Airport, among others.

"Part of our function is to submit proposals on behalf of our community," Merritt said. "It was a logical choice for us to just bring the package together."

But the business alliance proposal does not include an official statement of support from the city of Colorado Springs. Most of the other pitches include letters of support from nearby cities.

The Colorado Springs proposal includes an official letter of support from Colorado Springs Utilities, a report from the Colorado Springs Airport and a mention of partnership with the city and the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

"We had a lot of participation, and we didn't feel there was a real need for a support letter from the city when the city was already a big part of the proposal in a number of ways," Merritt said.

In spring 2014, Kern briefed Mayor Steve Bach, Police Chief Pete Carey and Fire Chief Chris Riley on the plan to make a pitch, Kern said.

Kim Melchor, a city spokeswoman, confirmed Wednesday that the city had met with Kern and that it supports bringing the center to Colorado Springs.

Kern thinks the business alliance's backing will give the Colorado Springs proposal an edge, proving that it has the support of the entire region.

"Because at the end of the day, this was not an airport function, it was a state function," he said.

"I think Colorado Springs did a really good job of involving multiple people. I think that strengthens our proposal."

Few communities in Colorado have been more affected by wildfire than El Paso County, which during 2012 and 2013 saw the most destructive fires in state history. Nor is the threat of wildfire in the community limited to isolated neighborhoods.

A quarter of Colorado Springs' residents live in the so-called "wildland urban interface" - neighborhoods abutting open spaces or federal lands that make them fire-danger zones.

Sixteen miles of the city's western border touches federal forest that would be ideal for research, said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, whose district is on the west side.

The fire research center also would benefit other southern Colorado counties affected by wildfire, including Fremont County, site of the 2013 Royal Gorge fire, and Rio Grande County, where the massive West Fork Complex fire ignited the same year.

Some of the Center for Excellence's efforts will go to preventing massive fires by finding them earlier. The state has two PC-12 planes equipped with remote thermal sensing technology that can find fires at night.

It took firefighters nearly 24 hours to locate the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, so local residents understand the importance of early detection, Clark said.

"We have not only the assets that are necessary for this type of facility, but we also have a passion to know that we need to do more about early detection . because we don't want to be caught in another Waldo," Clark said.

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Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0198

Twitter @ryanmhandy

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