Colorado looks to lease firefighting helicopter as part of legislation aimed at stopping wildfires before they grow

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Colorado is looking to lease a Firehawk helicopter, which would allow firefighters to respond to fires quickly in an attempt to put them out before they spread.
Photo by Skip Robinson / Sikorsky


STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The three largest wildfires in Colorado’s recorded history occurred last year, leaving lawmakers looking for solutions to combat the devastation. A bipartisan bill soon to be introduced in the state Legislature would fund a specialized helicopter to fight fires fast, while they are still small.

State Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale — who represents Senate District 8 — is a prime sponsor on a package of bills meant to address wildfire prevention, one of which would fund a Firehawk helicopter.

“It’s a helicopter that can fly fast, survive wind currents, and we can get it to fires very quickly and get them out before they explode like (East) Troublesome,” Rankin said. “The number of fires, relative to past years, really show that we have to do a much more aggressive job than we did in the past because we have more fires.”

The Firehawk also can fight fires at night, when wind and heat are generally lower.

There is bipartisan support for the helicopter, and it was proposed by Gov. Jared Polis in his budget for the upcoming fiscal year. It’s part of a $78 million package for wildfire relief, mitigation and prevention.

On Wednesday, Polis thanked Rankin and the bill’s House sponsor Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, during his State of the State address.

It “will help give Colorado the tools we need to catch and suppress wildfires before they get out of hand,” Polis said.

McCluskie said Colorado Department of Public Safety officials identified the Firehawk as a “game changer” when it comes to locating and suppressing fires quickly when they start.

Mutual-aid agreements mean local firefighters respond to any fire within their district, but they sometimes cannot get to a fire with their vehicles.

“One of the primary goals of having helicopters available in our region is to respond to smoke reports and potentially spot fires as they are in their starting phase,” Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Chuck Cerasoli said.

Cerasoli’s team fought the Middle Fork Fire, which burned more than 20,000 acres in a wilderness area north of Steamboat Springs in the fall, a fire he said started in sagebrush and spread fast. Some helicopters were able to dump a few buckets of water on it before it was able to spread very far.

“The key is to catch fires very early, so having that air support is a tremendous asset for us,” Cerasoli said.

A helicopter releases a bucket of water on the Dice Hill Fire on July 21 on the north end of Summit County. The fire was contained to 27 acres.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

The firefighting aircraft is converted from a Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter by United Rotorcraft based in Englewood and costs about $24 million. The aircraft would not be owned by the state; instead, Colorado would opt to lease the helicopter when needed.

“We use helicopters extensively, but they are those with the bucket underneath,” Rankin said. “(The Firehawk) can get on to the small fires in bad conditions much more quickly.”

The Firehawk doesn’t use a bucket. Instead it has a tank mounted to the bottom that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water, about three times the capacity of the bucket, and can be filled in 45 seconds. The chopper also can carry about a dozen fully geared firefighters to allow them fast access to a fire.

With the tank full of water, it can still maneuver at about 140 mph. If a water source is within 6 miles of the wildfire, the Firehawk can drop up to 16,000 gallons of water an hour.

“(Los Angeles) County pioneered this. They came to Sikorsky in the very late 1990s,” said Frans Jurgens, a spokesperson for Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin.

In the early 2000s, Los Angeles County got three Firehawks — each of which are still in use — and pioneered fighting fires with them, Jurgens said. Now, Los Angeles County owns five, San Diego owns one, and Cal Fire, California’s forest and fire protection department, owns three with nine more on order. Jurgens said there is interest in the helicopters from other Western states, as well.

“The military design of the Blackhawk is key also to this mission because you need a battle-grade aircraft that can carry 8,000 pounds of water, drop it and do that multiple times throughout the course of the day,” Jurgens said.

When leased, the helicopter will be controlled by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, which is part of the state’s Department of Public Safety. The helicopter can be used for other missions, too, like search and rescue.

One of the bills in the package Rankin is working on is a supplemental budget bill that moves about $13 million into three funds. Because the bill is supplemental, Rankin said the money could be spent now, rather than waiting for the new fiscal year. A third bill in the package would implement recommendations around wildfire mitigation.

“The forests are in bad shape, and when a small fire starts, it can explode quickly,” Rankin said. “We have funds for mitigation, we have funds for protection and suppression, and we have funds for restoration.”

The bill gives grants to local governments to get local resources to carry out mitigation efforts. Still, this can get complicated because forests often involve several levels of government oversight.

“If we can all partner to address the highest-risk area first and work from there, then mitigation efforts can do a lot of good,” Cerasoli said.

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