Bill would give Colorado its own aerial firefighting fleet

State could lease 3 helicopters this year

DENVER - Colorado is taking action to help support firefighters this summer.

The state could have its own fleet of helicopters to fight fires this summer, but the budget still needs approval.

Lawmakers are proposing a bill that would add three helicopters to the fleet the first year at a cost of anywhere from $8 to $12 million to lease them. 

There would be two Type 1 helicopters capable of dropping retardant, or converted to include 18 seats in order to drop firefighters into certain terrain.

Specifically, Senate Bill Senate Bill 164 calls on the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to purchase, lease or contract three firefighting helicopters this year. It calls for the division to lease or contract for use up to "four large aircraft from the federal government or other sources" next year.

The bill comes on the heels of the massive Black Forest Fire last June, the most destructive wildfire in state history.

"It is a clear and present danger and we need to address it," said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction.

King is the author of the legislation which is co-sponsored by Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. The bill has bipartisan support.

"We are one lightning strike, one match strike, one arsonist or terrorist match strike away from a catastrophic fire," said King.

King said there are four million acres of dead trees in Colorado, with 70 percent of that acreage on the Western Slope. King said catastrophic fires threaten the water shed in those areas, water that serves 40 million people nationwide.

Right now, Colorado is dependent on one of nine air tankers the U.S. government has for fighting fires.

If the bill passes, Colorado, like California, would have its own fleet. King said California has 43 planes in its fleet to fight fires.

King said it took three days for the state of Colorado to receive heavy air support for the Black Forest Fire.

"The federal government isn't going to fly in and save us. California isn't going to fly in and save us. We need to save ourselves," said King.

A bill that passed last year allowed Colorado to create its own firefighting air corps, but that bill was stripped of its funding. 

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