Colorado, meet your new firefighting machine.
A newly manufactured S-70M Black Hawk from Sikorsky has arrived in Colorado and over the next several months, experts will transition it into a Firehawk.
After an overseas voyage from Poland, the aircraft was transported to United Rotorcraft in Englewood, where the work has already started, said Eric Lama, air firefighting program manager for United Rotorcraft.
This new piece for firefighting equipment is the result of the state's push for better preparation and attacks on wildfires. Those efforts included the passage of a bill in 2021 dedicating $24 million for the acquisition of the aircraft.
After adding mission-essential equipment, it will be ready for use by November or December.
The Firehawk is a retrofitted Black Hawk helicopter with a 1,000-gallon water tank which can fill in less than a minute, extended landing gear to accommodate the tank, a retractable snorkel that can refill it in less than one minute, and a rescue hoist. In addition to attacking wildfires, the state-owned aircraft can transport up to 12 firefighters to the fire line, plus their equipment, and rescue people when needed. It is designed to stop fires before they can grow, can fly in the night, and is capable of flying in worse wind conditions than standard helicopters.
READ MORE: More Denver7 wildfire coverage
It is the first aircraft in the state that can transport fire crews and apparatuses while also fighting a fire, Lama said.
"So this helicopter not only fights fires, it's a multi-mission capable aircraft," he said. "It's capable of extracting people with a rescue hoist that will put on the airframe through the completion. They'll be able to transport EMS aircraft that can do humanitarian efforts. There's a multitude of different capacities that the helicopter can be used for throughout the year, if it's not fighting fire."
Lama said an aircraft like this one is "absolutely needed."
"It's a game-changer in its availability and its capabilities for fighting fires and being quick in rapid response to getting on station before something turns into what we see in the news and it becomes devastating," he said.
The Firehawk aircraft line has been in service for a few decades and in the United States, they're mostly found in California, said Michael Williams, senior director of programs at United Rotorcraft. California currently has nine Firehawks, with three more on the way, he said.
"With the growing need for wildfire mitigation and firefighting assets, the state of Colorado took the initiative to be one of the next first public entities to buy a Firehawk and begin adding it into its firefighting strategies," Williams said.
Colorado fire officials warned in April during an annual wildfire forecast presentation that while the state is more prepared than ever before to attack wildfires this year, the threat still remains high due statewide. Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), stressed the importance of public awareness surrounding activities that can ignite a fire — anything from agricultural burning to barbecuing to dragging trailer chains on the road.
In the case of a new blaze, the state will have aircraft available, weather permitting, to attack the flames from the air.
DFPC signed the contract with United Rotorcraft to complete and deliver the aircraft in August 2021.
In addition to this specialty aircraft, lawmakers announced last month they are planning on spending an additional $20 million to extend an exclusive use contract with an air tanker company.
Last year, Gov. Jared Polis signed two pieces of legislation — Senate Bills 21-049 “Department of Public Safety Supplemental” and SB21-113 “Firefighting Aircraft Wildfire Mgmt And Response” — that provide funds for additional wildfire-fighting resources such as a state-contracted Large Airtanker (LAT) and a State-contracted Type 1 Helicopter. The air tankers are available for roughly 240 days while the helicopters are available for about 230 days.
Senate Bill 21-113 directed the state treasurer to transfer $30,800,000 from the general fund to Colorado firefighting air corps to cover the costs of the Type 1 helicopter and Firehawk.