Colorado airtanker ready to protect state from current, future wildfires

Oil Springs Fire_June 23 2021_Bureau of Land Management photo
Posted at 12:21 PM, Jul 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-12 16:54:38-04

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC ) has selected Neptune Aviation for an exclusive-use contract for a large firefighting airtanker to help the state battle current and future wildfires.

Neptune Aviation is an aerial firefighting company and has been providing large airtanker services for more than 25 years around the United States.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis signed two pieces of legislation — Senate Bills 21-049 “Department of Public Safety Supplemental” and 21-113 “Firefighting Aircraft Wildfire Mgmt And Response” — that provide funds for additional wildfire-fighting resources such as a state-contracted Large Airtanker (LAT) and a State-contracted Type 1 Helicopter.

This specific LAT — a British Aerospace 146-200 aircraft, also called BAe-146 or Tanker 10 — has already started to help crews around the state. It was dispatched to the Muddy Slide Fire and the Oil Springs Fire on its first day in action, where it joined other LATs and one Very Large Airtanker (VLAT).

The BAe-146 can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant while flying faster than 400 knots at an altitude up to 28,000 feet.

On June 23 and 24, the BAe-146 and two other aircraft contracted with the U.S. Forest Service flew 19 missions to three Colorado fires, and dropped more than 52,000 gallons of retardant on the blazes.

The legislation also increases how many days DFPC’s Single-Engine Airtankers and helicopters are under contract. Senate Bills 21-049 also provides additional funding and resources so DFPC can better help fire departments in the early stages of a wildfire.

The exclusive-use contract lasts one year with renewal options up to four years.

The BAe-146 is stored at the Jeffco Airtanker Base in Broomfield.

While conditions have stayed relatively cool and damp for about a week, the DFPC said Colorado should expect another year of intense wildfires this summer due to ongoing drought conditions that could worsen through the summer.

In addition to this contract with Neptune Aviation, contracts for Type 2 helicopters have been extended by 110 days and the DFPC will have a Type 1 helicopter contracted for a year as a newly budgeted Firehawk helicopter is built for June 2022, thanks to Senate Bill 21-113.

The Firehawk is a one-time purchase of about $24 million. Senate Bill 21-113 directs the state treasurer to transfer $30,800,000 from the general fund to Colorado firefighting air corps to cover the costs of the Type 1 helicopter and Firehawk.

The state will also operate two state-owned multi-mission aircraft and a minimum of two single-engine air tankers.

Last year, several wildfires — the Cameron Peak Fire, East Troublesome Fire and Pine Gulch Fire — grew to become the largest in Colorado's recorded history. More than 600,000 acres of forest burned in the state.

These are the state's largest wildfires, ranked by acreage:
1. Cameron Peak Fire (2020): 208,913 acres
2. East Troublesome Fire (2020): 193,812 acres
3. Pine Gulch Fire (2020): 139,007 acres
4. Hayman Fire (2002): 137,760 acres
5. Spring Fire (2018): 108,045 acres
6. High Park Fire (2012): 87,284 acres
7. Missionary Ridge Fire (2002): 72,962 acres
8. 416 Fire (2018): 54,129 acres
9. Bridger Fire (2008): 45,800 acres
10. Last Chance Fire (2012): 45,000 acres
Note: The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center said the West Fork Complex fire, which burned a total of 109,632 acres in 2013, is not included on this list since it involved three separate fires.