The Colorado Springs Airport and U.S. Forest Service will spend $17 million to build a regional firefighting base at the airport that will allow air tankers to load retardant to battle fires in five states and parts of 10 others.
Construction is scheduled to begin in April on offices, a storage building for retardant, an area where retardant will be mixed and seven stations to load the retardant onto waiting aircraft, according to a joint news release from Colorado Springs and Forest Service. The federal agency has operated a temporary base since 2018 at the airport for military and commercial aircraft it uses to fight wildfires. The permanent base is expected to open in 2021.
The Forest Service said in an emailed statement that the base will allow it "to send an increased amount of retardant to a wildfire faster and with great efficiency to support the firefighters on the ground and protect communities from the approaching threat of wildfire," which has increased in Western states in recent years.
"I am pleased and commend the airport staff for pulling off this project. It is good for the state and Pikes Peak region," Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said. "This has been in discussion for several years, but in 2018 the Forest Service set up a temporary base for southern Colorado and they were impressed with airfield capacity and its proximity in central Colorado to the rest of the state."
The Forest Service is leasing nearly 3 acres for the base just north of the airport's military rapid deployment terminal and next to the east runway for 40 years. The airport will spend $9.3 million building an 8-acre concrete ramp for the base and expects to generate $100,000 in annual revenue from the hub. The airport plans to use the ramp in the winter for de-icing and to park up to 15 aircraft diverted by weather to Colorado Springs from Denver International Airport or other nearby airports, Suthers said.
The Forest Service received funding for the project in 2018 as part of a six-month compromise spending bill enacted to avert a federal government shutdown. The airport is financing the ramp from reserves and a $7 million low-interest loan from the Colorado Department of Transportation State Infrastructure Bank program. Construction on the ramp is expected to begin in March and be completed in July, Suthers said.
"The airport has always deiced planes near the passenger terminal; now we will have a separate de-icing area," Suthers said. The new ramp will be more efficient for airlines because it is adjacent to the airport's primary runway and will likely reduce flight delays resulting from winter weather because aircraft can be de-iced just before taking off.
The air tanker base will be used by aircraft to fight fires within a 600-mile radius, including Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming and parts of Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas. The base will be able to load 90,000 gallons of retardant an hour and handle all types of commercial air tankers, including very large tankers that can hold more than 5,000 gallons of retardant, the release said. The Forest Service said in a statement that staffing for the base hasn't been determined.
"The Colorado Springs Airtanker Base will significantly enhance the U.S. Forest Service's capabilities to combat wildfires with increased capacity and efficiency," U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said in an email statement. "The strategic location of the air tanker base will undoubtedly prove to be a center of excellence for the aerial firefighting mission and an asset not only to the state of Colorado but to the entire region."
Lamborn said he worked with the Forest Service during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires in 23012-13 to bring a temporary air tanker base to Colorado Springs and keep it here once it opened.
Suthers said the tanker base also will provide "additional level of security to the Colorado Springs area by having these planes here every summer. We are as vulnerable as any city with the size of our urban-wildland interface as evidenced by the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires," in 2012-13 that burned more than 800 homes and killed four people.