DENVER — Across Colorado, fire officials are once again bracing for what could be another severe year of wildfires in the state between the hot and dry conditions.
Traditionally, Colorado, like many other states across the country, have relied on the federal government and its dozens of airtankers and aircraft to fight major fires.
However, with other states also facing severe wildfire seasons recently, it’s been increasingly difficult to get those resources to respond to Colorado.
“The demand for those assets is getting greater and greater, and we found ourselves in situations where we'd be at a large fire needing support from an air tanker or a helicopter and it would be in one of the other 19 states in the West, on another priority fire, that you couldn't get it when you needed it,” said Mike Morgan, the director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
Because of that and the increasing frequency and intensity of fires in the state, Morgan says it was time for Colorado to start rethinking the way it was doing business.
“Over the last several years we've invested in that model, because it's worked. And we've learned that that operational control piece is critical to protect Colorado and Coloradans,” Morgan said.
In recent years, lawmakers have doubled down on their efforts to help the state better prepare for and fight wildfires. Last year, legislators passed a bill dedicating $24 million for the acquisition of the state’s first ever Firehawk.
It is a retrofitted Blackhawk helicopter that can transport a dozen firefighters at a time and drop 1,000 gallons of water on fires each run.
“It is a true multi-mission firefighting machine,” said Brad Schneider, the regional sales manager of United Rotorcraft. “It's rugged, it was built for battle and the new battlefield for the Firehawk is the fire scene.”
States have increasingly turned to the helicopters to battle blazes from the air with targeted drops. California already has eight Firehawks with another 12 on order.
However, the helicopter won’t be ready to start fighting fires in the state for another several months. In fact, the Englewood company in charge of retrofitting it hasn’t even gotten ahold of the helicopter yet.
United Rotorcraft is expecting to have the helicopter sent to its facility by next month, then it will spend the next six to eight months transitioning it into a Firehawk.
Schneider tells Denver7 he’s hoping that production will stay on schedule but there is a supply chain challenge to contend with.
“There's a global supply chain issue. We've done our best to preorder equipment and have it on hand by the time the aircraft arrives,” he said.
Still, the company says it’s working quickly and is hoping to have the Colorado Firehawk ready by November or December.
While the state waits for the helicopter, on Friday lawmakers announced they are planning on spending an additional $20 million to extend an exclusive use contract with an air tanker company.
Last 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.
The air tankers are available for roughly 240 days while the helicopters are available for about 230 days.
The additional $20 million will come from federal money given to Colorado and will be used to secure additional aircraft contracts and extend the days they are able to be used.
“Those funds will go to contracts for additional air tankers and helicopters to quickly and decisively respond to fires before they get out of control,” said Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.
The additional funding will likely come in the form of an amendment to Senate bill 22-260, which offers resources to families, local governments and businesses that are underinsured to help them rebuild in the event of a natural disaster.
Fenberg is hoping the state won’t have to use the aircrafts, but he says he hopes the funding and contracts will put Colorado in a better position if disaster strikes.