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

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.

This story is from SteamboatPilot.com.

Colorado officials hold summit to get public feedback on wildfire mitigation and recovery

The East Troublesome Fire burns over Granby in October. On Thursday, Feb. 18, Colorado officials hosted a public listening session to gain insights on the impacts and potential solutions to combat growing concerns about wildfires in the state.
Photo by Eli Pace / Sky-Hi News

During a virtual panel discussion Thursday afternoon, Colorado officials emphasized a need for more cooperation among federal, state and local actors in Colorado’s fight against wildfires.

Rep. Joe Neguse, who serves Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, hosted a public listening session Thursday, Feb. 18, to gain insights on the impacts and potential solutions to combat growing concerns about wildfires in the state. The session featured a panel discussion between Neguse, Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Department of Public Safety Director Stan Hilkey and Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet.

In the wide-ranging discussion, officials shared their perspectives on the changes necessary to protect Colorado’s public lands, property and lives, and they turned to residents for questions and to share their experiences with local wildfires in recent years.

“It doesn’t escape me that the most devastating fires of 2020 burned at a time of the year when snow should be falling,” Neguse said. “Clearly, with the impacts of climate change, the need to promote healthy forests, the impacts on watershed health and the need to protect homes and businesses, wildfires are just a complex issue for our communities. There really is no silver bullet, which is why these conversations are so important so that we can all candidly talk about what steps we might be able to take in the Congress and the Senate, and of course here in Colorado, working together to solve these incredible challenges.”

The challenges indeed are incredible. The state saw the three largest wildfires in its recorded history last year — the Cameron Peak Fire, East Troublesome Fire and Pine Gulch Fire — which scorched nearly 550,000 acres across the state, burning down hundreds of homes and claiming the lives of two Coloradans. Looking back on the destruction, exacerbated by climate change and historically poor forest management tactics, officials promised to work toward comprehensive and holistic solutions.

One prevailing theme throughout the session was a need for more robust national support for Coloradans and other Americans throughout the West dealing with a new age of megafires. Bennet said the issue would require a hegemonic shift in understanding about the dangers wildfires pose to the state’s infrastructure, environment and economy.

“One of the most important things we can do is change the way Congress thinks about our forests,” Bennet said. “Politicians in Washington need to understand that in Colorado, and across the West, forests are our infrastructure. They are as important to our state’s economy as the Lincoln Tunnel is to New York. But the truth is we have major challenges with this infrastructure. We’re now dealing with the consequences of a century of fire suppression and chronic underfunding for the Forest Service. When you combine that with climate change, it’s put the agency and state and local governments in a nearly impossible position. …

“We’re paying for wildfires after they happen rather than investing on the front end. That’s fiscally irresponsible, and … we need, I think, a major shift at the national level to prioritize forest restoration and wildfire mitigation — and a major investment to go with it.”

Bennet pointed to his bill, the Outdoor Restoration Force Act, which he said would spur a $40 billion federal investment in forest health, watershed restoration and climate resilience projects across the country; provide $20 billion in funds allocated to state and local governments; and create 2 million jobs in rural areas. Neguse also discussed the 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act, which would allocate billions of dollars in funds to restore public lands and watersheds, improve forest health and reduce wildfire risks, among other endeavors.

Officials also highlighted the importance of local initiatives in the wildland-urban interface to mitigate wildfire risks. Polis likened at-home perimeter defense — like removing trees and building firewise homes — to biblical tales of Israelites marking their doors with lamb’s blood before the 10th plague on the Egyptians, saying that homeowner mitigation efforts can help the “angel of destruction” that is a wildfire pass over.

Hilkey lauded local governments like Summit County for its efforts to create fire breaks that helped to curb destruction during the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire, but he said focusing on the state’s ability to fight fires was equally important to protect communities.

“They had done an enormous amount of mitigation around the subdivision, but it alone did not save the subdivision,” Hilkey said. “It was also an aggressive initial attack. In any public policy conversation we have about wildfire in the American West, there’s sort of two major topics of conversation: mitigation and suppression. … Much of the time, it seems that people often try to choose one side or another. I want to encourage us all to resist the urge to do that and understand that mitigation and suppression need our full support. They’re symbiotic to a successful Colorado future when we’re talking about wildland fire.”

Prompted by questions from the public, Hilkey and other officials also discussed a need to work with communities to develop responsibly so chokepoints aren’t created during potential evacuations, and to work with local governments and emergency agencies to study and train for mass evacuations to ensure they can be done smoothly and safely.

Members of the public also asked for better information during wildfires to keep residents informed about the status of their homes and properties, more support and funding for firefighters, better recovery efforts for those who’ve lost their homes or livelihoods, and help working with insurance companies to make sure homeowners can be made whole again.

Officials promised to take the conversation to heart as they return to their duties.

“We’re in a place where we’ve got a decision to make about whether we’re going to stand up for the next generation of Coloradans and Americans and leave a legacy that matters,” Bennet said. “When you stand in a forest … that’s been treated the way it ought to be treated, it starts to look a little more like a forest might have looked when Native American people were in Colorado. It’s like standing in a cathedral. That could be our legacy if we pull together and really do the work that needs to be done. I’m grateful for this. This is a good, inspiring moment for us to take back to Washington and get to work.”

Courtney Walsh, a Boulder resident who lost her home in the Calwood Fire, called on all Coloradans to come together to deal with the growing problem.

“We feel really lucky,” Walsh said. “We have our lives. We have our family and friends. We can’t imagine getting through it without this amazing Boulder community. But I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we’ve gone through. … All of us together have to work together to prevent future wildfires.”