Plan for fire aircraft clears first committee

Vic Vela
Posted

A bill that could lead to the creation of an aerial firefighting fleet in Colorado has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The Colorado Firefighting Air Corps would form under state Senate Bill 245, a bold undertaking that carries with it a price tag of about $25 million.

The bill’s sponsors say the fleet is needed in an effort to combat wildfires that continue to wreak havoc across the state.

Last year alone, six lives were lost and more than 600 homes were destroyed during a particularly devastating fire

season.

The bill passed the Senate’s Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee on April 11 with unanimous support. But it will be up to the Appropriations Committee to determine funding.

Alex Schatz, a Legislative Council staffer, pulled no punches about the cost of the bill when he testified before the committee.

“The fiscal note is a piece of work,” Schatz said. “It’s a big fiscal note.”

The bill’s cost takes into account the purchase and associated costs of firefighting aircraft, such as large air tankers, single-engine air tankers, tactical planes and helicopters.

Some of the costs could be mitigated through federal reimbursement and grants.

The bill’s sponsors — Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, and Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction — also said the fleet could lead to new economic opportunities in the

state.

Jahn acknowledged to committee members that the bill’s cost “may make your eyes pop out,” but that it’s worth it. She said that “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” Colorado is hit with another devastating wildfire season.

“This could very well be a more significant season for fire than last year,” Jahn said.

King told the committee that the federal government cannot be counted on to come to the aid of every state that is ablaze during wildfire season. He told members that there are only nine federal air tankers available to service “a very water-starved United States.”

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, agreed with King, saying the lack of federal resources “have left us with no other alternative” than for the state to put in place its own fleet.

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled committee following a 5-0 vote. Jahn told Colorado Community Media after the hearing that she’s has had conversations with members of the Appropriations Committee and she feels good about the bill’s funding chances.

“I don’t know if we’ll get all of it,” Jahn said.

“But there’s enough interest to begin an honest discussion, and to look for pockets of money to get this started.”