Colorado Purchases Fire-Spotting Planes to Battle Wildfires

By IVAN MORENO | August 22, 2014

Colorado will begin a new strategy for fighting wildfires in the coming weeks, deploying aircraft designed to pinpoint the location of blazes quicker after the first sighting of smoke with the aim of beginning suppression efforts faster.

The state is buying two fire-spotting planes as part of a fleet that state lawmakers approved this spring after catastrophic wildfires raged in consecutive years, destroying hundreds of homes. The planes will have thermal-imaging capabilities from several miles away, and fire officials have set a goal of finding small fires within an hour of reported smoke.

No other state owns these types of planes, said Micki Trost, a spokeswoman at Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Last year, the Black Forest Fire in El Paso County alone destroyed nearly 500 homes, the most by a wildfire in state history. The year before that, the Waldo Canyon Fire in the same county also destroyed hundreds of homes.

Colorado Springs, Colo., June 30, 2012 --  Waldo Canyon Fire. Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA
Colorado Springs, Colo., June 30, 2012 — Waldo Canyon Fire. Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

While this wildfire season hasn’t been as destructive in Colorado, state officials hope the public will see the benefit of the aircraft in the future.

“I think our challenge going forward, and it’s probably a good challenge, is to be able to demonstrate their effectiveness in keeping fires smaller,” said Paul Cooke, the state’s top fire chief, who recommended the fleet to lawmakers this spring.

To work in tandem with the fire-detecting planes, Cooke also recommended that lawmakers contract four helicopters to drop crews off at remote areas and four single-engine tankers to begin fire suppression within an hour of a request from fire chiefs. The cost estimate for the helicopters was just under $5 million, and it was just over $3 million for the single-engine tankers.

Money for the aircraft wasn’t available until July 1, the start of the fiscal year. Since mid-July, the state has had three of the helicopters and two of the single-engine tankers. They have carried out 41 missions so far.

By far, the most expensive part of the fleet is the spotter planes, which Cooke said cost nearly $10 million to buy, and about $2 million annually for pilots and maintenance.

The state is contracting with the Centennial-based Sierra Nevada Corporation for the planes. The first will be available by the end of August, although Cooke said it will take weeks to train pilots. The second plane will be available in October.

“These are far more accurate than waiting for smoke to appear, and we can see a heat signature from a long ways away,” Cooke said.

When he testified before lawmakers in the spring, he mentioned examples in recent years where it’s been difficult to spot fires by simply looking out of a plane’s window during flyovers.

The planes will also provide information to ground crews about exactly where the fire is and what fuels are burning.

Republicans had tried in the past to get approval for a firefighting fleet, but Democrats shot down the idea, citing concerns about costs. This year, the fleet received bipartisan support with Cooke’s recommendations.

“We had to do something that was meaningful in terms of addressing the problem (of wildfires),” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango.

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