A firefighting plane drops retardants on the Cal-Wood fire near Boulder on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. (Joseph Gruber, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When wildfires swept across Colorado and the western U.S. last summer and fall, water- and retardant-dropping airplanes and helicopters that can make the difference between a small blaze and a deadly megafire were difficult to come by. 

States were suddenly pitted against each other as federal emergency managers worked to determine who needed the most help from the skies. And that resource choke-point is only expected to get worse as climate change stokes a longer fire season filled with more and larger blazes. 

That’s why Colorado lawmakers have signed off on spending tens of millions of dollars this year to improve the state’s access to wildfire-fighting planes and helicopters by extending lease agreements. They also have agreed to purchase a state-of-the-art firefighting helicopter.

Colorado currently owns only two aircraft dedicated to firefighting. Both are single-engine Pilatus PC-12s and they can only track blazes, not put them out. 

“By having our own (aircraft), whether it’s leased or purchased, we maintain that operational control and make sure there’s at least a certain amount of resources in Colorado,” said Vaughn Jones, wildland division section chief at the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

One proposal lawmakers have already approved would, if signed by Gov. Jared Polis, increase the state’s current contracts for two single-engine air tankers to 240 days up from 150 for a cost of about $620,000. The two helicopters it has on contract for fire season would be available to Colorado for 230 days up from 120 for a cost of $1.36 million.

The state, under Senate Bill 49, would also add a 110-day contract, up from 75 days, for a large air tanker for $5.36 million.

A Type-2 helicopter heads toward the Grizzly Creek fire north of Glenwood Springs Friday August 14, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Doing long-term leases gives us the first priority on the use of (the aircraft),” said state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and state budget writer. “It’s really that simple. If we have to lease them on a short-term basis, then we’re really competing with the other states.” 

Rankin, whose district was ravaged by wildfires in 2020, says he’s very concerned about having to compete with other states for aerial resources in the future as fires get worse. And there’s a sense of urgency. 

“The expectation is that the dollars get out the door as quickly as possible to prepare for the next wildfire season,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and chair of the Joint Budget Committee. “I think this is the first time the state is making a conscious effort in anticipation of the next wildfire season.”

Jones, the wildland division chief, said the longer contracts are also crucial because massive wildfires are no longer limited to the summer months. Compared to the late 1970s and early 1980s, Colorado’s core fire season is now 78 to 84 days longer. 

The East Troublesome, Cameron Peak and Cal-Wood fires were most active in October. 

“Large, significant fires are now in Colorado every month of the year,” Jones said. “A lot of those traditional models for wildland fire, both for the aircraft as well as the firefighters themselves, were based on those historical, short-duration fire seasons in the summer. We are looking at trying to shift all of our resources (that) we can — personnel, equipment and aviation — to a year-round model.”

A quick aerial attack on a fire can be the difference between a docile event and disaster. 

Take the Elephant Butte fire near Evergreen in June. A swarm of planes and helicopters were able to knock down the fire before it reached hundreds of surrounding homes. 

Lawmakers have also approved Senate Bill 113, which allocates $30.8 million to purchase a “Firehawk” helicopter, which is a modified version of Sikorski’s S-70 “Black Hawk” helicopter. The aircraft’s purchase price is about $25 million and the rest of the money would be used to operate it over the next few years.

“We have not made a purchase of this size before. We have expanded our aviation resources over the years, but I think based on this last year’s experience there has been recognition that the state needs to be better prepared,” state Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, told her colleagues during a recent meeting. “Something like the Firehawk can be a real game changer in being able to tackle those fires early and quickly before they get out of hand.”

The Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction . (Handout)

Colorado’s two state-owned aircraft firefighting fleet is puny relative to other states.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, for instance, has a fleet of more than 50 state-owned aircraft, including a mix of airplanes and helicopters. Reuters reports that a Cal Fire aircraft can reach most fires within 20 minutes. 

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources has a fleet of 9 state-owned helicopters that battle fires. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources also has a number of state-owned wildfire-fighting planes. 

The Firehawk can cruise at more than 160 miles per hour, operate at high altitudes and carry 1,000 gallons of water. Another plus: It has an external water tank instead of carrying a bucket, meaning it can fly over homes and roadways that must be evacuated when other, bucket-wielding firefighting helicopters are in use.

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When it’s not being used for firefighting, the Firehawk can be deployed on search and rescue missions. It can also be sent to other states, who in turn would pay Colorado for the aircraft’s services. 

“We are seeing more activity to own these resources,” Moreno said, “which implies that we can expect bigger and worse fire seasons going forward.” 

Colorado lawmakers this year are also set to spend millions on fire mitigation efforts, restoring watersheds impacted by blazes and boosting a fund from which local governments can be reimbursed for their initial response to fires.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....