Published: June 14, 2014
It's the most visible and also the most embattled part of fighting a forest fire - the aerial attack.
Large airplanes drop thousands of gallons of red slurry to slow a fire's growth so crews on the ground can build fire lines, protect homes and battle flames.
The sight of air tankers over Black Forest last summer reassured residents that the fire was getting more support earlier than was the case at other Colorado fires.
However, it's uncertain whether that would happen so quickly again if disaster strikes. The fleet of slurry bombers is old and federal budget cuts threaten some of the military planes used to fight wildfires.
As the budget battle continues, some say money is better spent on other firefighting methods such as reconnaissance, water-dropping helicopters and additional ground crews.
The state is buying two airplanes equipped with state-of-the-art fire sensing and mapping technology for an estimated $11.7 million, and budgeted another $7.8 million for contract helicopters and small planes that drop water.
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order Wednesday setting aside an additional $2 million that could be used to reimburse local agencies that respond to wildfires outside of their jurisdictions. The money is intended to promote rapid response to fires regardless of location.
The investment decision was driven by a detailed analysis by Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, who found that detecting and properly mapping fires was more critical for the state given available and pending federal assets.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office noted in a post-fire analysis released this week that additional air support "strictly dedicated for reconnaissance purposes" would have been helpful during the Black Forest fire.
Lt. Jeff Kramer, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said the new fire-detecting and mapping aircraft being purchased by the state will be a great help with future fires.
"That kind of eye in the sky, any broad overview you can't gain from the ground, that ends up helping with the forces on the ground, to get them deployed to the best locations," Kramer said.
He added that even having the planes help with smoke detection and searching for possible flareups after a lightning storm moves through a remote area would increase the likelihood of getting to a fire before it gets out of control.
The U.S. Forest Service expects to have 21 air tankers ready to battle fires this year, but it's been a complicated journey to get that many aircraft dedicated to the cause.
Seven of the aircraft are "legacy-contract" airplanes, some of which are 50 years old and nearing the end of their airworthiness, said Mike Ferris, public information officer for the Forest Service's National Incident Management Organization.
Last year the Forest Service ordered seven "next generation" air tankers from companies that won a protracted bidding process. After some companies failed to get their planes ready in time and in response to concern over another busy fire season, the U.S. Forest Service contracted for four additional air tankers with companies that lost in the bidding process.
There are 16 planes ready to battle fires now and Ferris said more will come online this summer.
"It's a significant change from where we've been with the increase and the modernization of the fleet," Ferris said. "It's been slow to come but we're definitely making steady progress."
Additionally airplanes from Canada and Alaska are available for use by the U.S. Forest Service when they aren't in use in the north where the fire season begins and ends earlier, Ferris said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, pushed the Forest Service to get more planes ready for this year's fire season. The tankers don't extinguish wildfires, but are critical in slowing flames and preventing small fires from getting out of hand.
"We still have a ways to go to fully replace the Forest Service's outdated Korean War-era air fleet," Udall said. "I'm going to do everything in my power to cut through Washington red tape."
Additionally, the Forest Service has more than 100 water- or retardant-dropping helicopters available this fire season.
Also critical to a firefight, Udall said, are the C-130s the military makes available when necessary.
Both Udall and Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said budget cuts may threaten the military's emergency firefighting fleet.
Military aircraft played a critical role in battling the Black Forest fire. Planes from Peterson Air Force Base's 302nd Airlift Wing and helicopters from Fort Carson helped stop the fire's march through the forest. And they were on the job in record time.
Fort Carson helicopters joined the fight within hours, thanks to a new Defense Department policy that allows commanders to protect life and property around military installations in an emergency. C-130s from the 302nd Airlift Wing were ordered into the battle within 12 hours.
That's a change from procedures used in 2012 that critics say delayed the use of military aircraft to fight the Waldo Canyon fire. Under those rules, officials had to determine that civilian resources had been exhausted before military assets were called.
Regardless of future decisions, the 302nd Airlift Wing is fully manned and ready to fight fires this season, officials said.
Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, the 302's chief of aerial firefighting, said two firefighting aircraft and crews are ready to respond anywhere in the country within three days.
Congress and military leaders are working to determine how a proposed cut to the 302nd will impact such readiness in 2015. The Air Force wants to cut four of the wing's aircraft and eliminate a squadron of 200 airmen.
While the proposed cut doesn't directly involve the planes used in fighting wildfires, an increased reliance on fewer people and planes to fulfill the wing's primary mission of hauling passengers and cargo could squeeze firefighting efforts, Lamborn warned.
Gazette reporter Tom Roeder contributed to this story.