Plan to create a Colorado firefighting fleet passes first hurdle

Bill passes Senate committee

DENVER - The Colorado Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously passed a bill that would create a state firefighting air fleet on Thursday.

The five-member committee voted to pass the bill unanimously. It will next move to the Senate appropriations committee.

“If not us, then who is going to do this? And if not now, when are we going to do this?” asked the bill's sponsor Sen. Steve King.

The bill would create a fleet of up to six air tankers based and paid for by Colorado. It hasn't been determined if the fleet would be solely owned by the state or if a public-private partnership would be created.

The bill could face more scrutiny in the appropriations committee, where it will be determined who will pay for the fleet and out of which fund this money would come from.

Sen. Greg Brophy suggested during Thursday's meeting the state should look at taking close to $18 million from Great Outdoors Colorado's budget and using the funds to pay for the purchase and maintenance of the fleet. He argued open spaces destroyed by fire are useless, making the GOCO budget useless unless the state got serious in mitigating wildfires.

Paul Cooke, Division of Fire Prevention director, testified that his department is still trying to settle its bill with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for wildfire costs from last year.

Cooke said during the number crunching his department began researching the feasibility of hosting its own air fleet, and it is financially sound.

"We felt it would be good to go back and look to make sure we can meet our own needs," he said.

Cooke said the state currently has contracts for two single engine air tankers this wildfire season and is looking into adding another one. One of those SEATs is already based in Fort Collins.

Six people died in three major wildfires in Colorado last year.