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Bill Would Give Colorado its Own $8 Million Aerial Firefighting Fleet

Bill calls for planes and helicopters that can fight fires at night, that meet the U.S. Forest Services requirements for next generation firefighting aircraft and that can perform at high elevation.

A C-130 dropping fire retardant on a fire in Southern California. Wikipedia

A Canada-based company showed off the latest aerial firefighting technology Wednesday in Centennial, Colo., helping lawmakers make their pitch for a state-owned air fleet to fight wildfires.

The only firefighting C-130 tanker in the nation buzzed the Centennial Airport tarmac dropping 3,500 gallons of water dyed red to look like slurry used as a fire retardant.

The plane was led into the drop by a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter equipped with infrared fire mapping technology.

The pair represent the future of firefighting, said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, exactly the technology he wants Colorado to invest in to prepare for the next fire season.

King's Senate Bill 164 calls for the state to acquire four slurry bombers and three firefighting or tactical helicopters.

King said he didn't have any company in mind when he wrote his bill, but Canada-based Coulson Aircrane is at the forefront of the industry.

"What was in my mind," King said, "was the cutting-edge technology and the best that is available for what Colorado needs."

SB164 calls for planes and helicopters that can fight fires at night, that meet the U.S. Forest Services requirements for next-generation firefighting aircraft and that can perform at high elevation.

Under the bill, the state would issue a request for bids.

"I think you go and you try to find the best people," King said.

Owner and CEO of Coulson Aircrane, Wayne Coulson, said his company is the only one capable of fighting fires at night.

Winds typically die down at night, humidity goes up and temperatures drop.

"That's when you fight your battle," Coulson said.

Their C-130 is one of five next-generation slurry bombers contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires in 2014.

Fighting fires from the air is nothing new. The U.S. Forest Service has contracted with private companies for decades to fight wildfires across the nation, most using Korean War-era bombers to drop slurry on fires.

In the late '80s, an effort to convert military C-130 tankers to slurry bombers failed amid scandal.

And over the past decade, the fleet of slurry bombers has dwindled from 44 to eight.

The Forest Service will add to that fleet the Coulson C-130 bomber and a DC-10 from the California-based company, 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

Both companies were awarded contracts for "next-generation" aircraft.

Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist with the Forest Service, said another two airtankers from Aero Flite are close to meeting the requirements and will be ready for wildfire missions soon. Another two vendors won bids for airtankers but are in various stages of meeting the orders, she said.

Nine companies bid for contracts in a second round of bidding.

The federal government contracted with three other private airtankers in 2013 and uses eight tankers form the Department of Defense.

King said the state can't wait on the federal government to prevent the next catastrophic Colorado wildfire.

"The idea of a catastrophic fire on the Western Slope where 80 percent of our water comes from, could change Colorado watersheds for generations to come," King said. "We have a legal obligation to deliver drinking water to those lower basin states and the country of Mexico."

That urgent message is getting missed, he said.

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, said she is concerned about millions of acres of dead timber that could go up in flames.

Schwartz is chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, where King's bill will likely be heard for the first time next week.

Schwartz supports the bill but is concerned about finding the funding this fiscal year.

King said it will cost between $8 million and $12 million to bid the aircraft -- a bargain compared to what it costs Colorado to fight fires every year.

The legislation is in interesting political doldrums.

Senate President Morgan Carroll is a co-sponsor of the bill, indicating it should have enough support among the Democratic majority to get through the Senate.

But funding for the planes isn't included in the budget.

And Gov. John Hickenlooper has said more study is necessary to know whether airtankers and helicopters are the best way to fight fires. Some favor on-the-ground tactics as the real fire-stop.

A study of just that -- how effective airtankers would be in fighting Colorado wildfires -- is expected April 1 from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention.

King said he wasn't waiting for the report to push for his bill.

"That's the bureaucratic way to not get things done," he said. "I need the governor to step up and get in the game."

Even Britt Coulson, director of aviation for Coulson Aircrane, admitted that sometimes airtankers aren't the most effective way to battle a fire.

Sometimes when a tanker is in the air, he said it's for "political reasons."

But Coulson said that's where his company excels, critically analyzing the effectiveness of every drop so its firefighting methods improve.

And the C-130 tanker can drop more fire retardant slurry in a denser pattern than other airtankers, Wayne Coulson said.

During the winter, Coulson's helicopters are in Australia battling wildfires.

©2014 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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