Colorado's Fire Director finds 'critical need to enhance the state's firefighting resources'

DENVER - A special report from Colorado's fire prevention director cites "a critical need to enhance the state's firefighting resources." His report also included recommended improvements. 

Paul Cooke is the Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.  A law passed last year created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps and set the process in motion. The division was directed to come up with strategies to improve the state's aerial firefighting capabilities.

Cooke's report focused on ways to suppress fires early on, and underscored what's happened when crews have failed to attack fires before they blow up.


In June 2012, after the first report of smoke coming from the Waldo Canyon Fire, it took crews 17 hours to determine the fire's location. The firestorm roared into populated areas, killing two people, destroying 346 homes, and burning more than 18,000 acres in Colorado Springs and the Pike National Forest. 

 "If the fire had been timely located and assessed, local fire management organizations would likely have been able to suppress the fire before it became a destructive, wind-driven event," Cooke's report states.

The report also detailed issues beginning on June 8, 2012 in Larimer County when smoke from the High Park Fire was first reported. The wildfire was caused by lightning and ignited in an area that was not easily accessible from the ground. An aircraft was dispatched to fly above the area, but was unable to visually spot the fire's location.

Cooke's report states that during the next day, on June 9, "responders spent the valuable time between the detection of smoke and arrival of the first ground firefighters focused on determining the location, access routes, and initial assessment of the fire. The difficulty of locating the source of the smoke and then the travel time to the incident delayed the ability of the incident commander to generate a suppression strategy. Effective tools were unavailable to locate the fire and communicate pertinent information and ground personnel had long transit times due to poor access; for these reasons, the fire grew into an event that exceeded the capability of the initial attack resources."  

"Is the state equipped, right now, to handle the next major wildfire?" asked 7NEWS Investigative Reporter Amanda Kost.

"The state is equipped as it can be within the resource constraints. The wildland fire problem in Colorado is an evolving problem. It's just growing worse and worse. So, it's time that we bring more resources to take on a growing problem," Cooke said. 

Cooke's plan calls for the state to buy two spotter planes to detect wildfires within an hour after the first sighting of smoke. He also recommends that the state contract four helicopters and four single-engine tankers to start attacking fires within an hour of a request from local fire chiefs.

The estimated cost for the first year is $33.6 million, and $23.6 million for subsequent years.

"I just want to empower him (Cooke) to protect our lives and water here in Colorado," said State Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. "If we lease it (firefighting air corps), if we rent it, if we buy it, it's the end result that I'm interested in, which is protecting our lives and water."

King is the author of Senate Bill 164, which prompts the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to purchase, lease, or contract firefighting aviation resources. The legislation is co-sponsored by Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. The bill has bipartisan support.

7NEWS reached out to Gov. John Hickenlooper's office for an on-camera interview. The Governor was traveling out of state, but Eric Brown, Hickenlooper's director of communications said, "We support the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control's recommendation to spend $21.7 million for the 2014 fire season. We have found the long-term funding for the request, but not the interim funding plan that is still being debated. We continue to work with lawmakers on this."

You can here the urgency in King's voice.

"It now is a priority with this administration, it's a priority with the Senate, and I'm hoping it will be a priority with the House, and we'll move toward solving what I believe to be a clear and present danger to the state of Colorado," the senator said.

Lawmakers have debated funding sources for the proposed recommendations. Cooke said, if approved, the earliest that recommended improvements could begin to be implemented, would be July 1. That's the start of the fiscal year.



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