CENTENNIAL AIRPORT — Colorado is doubling down on its push to rely less on rented aircraft to fight wildfires with the purchase of a second helicopter capable of quickly crisscrossing the state to detect and douse flames.
Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill Friday allocating $26 million to buy another “Firehawk,” a converted version of the military’s ubiquitous Black Hawk helicopter. The Firehawk’s top speed is about 160 mph and it can quickly slurp up and drop 1,000 gallons of water.
When fires aren’t burning, the helicopter can be deployed on search and rescue missions.
Right now, Colorado has no operational, state-owned aircraft that can drop water and retardant on fires. Instead, it relies on contracts with private aerial firefighting companies to respond to blazes across the state.
Some of those air resources are pooled regionally, meaning that the rented helicopters and airplanes serve multiple states at the same time.
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But that’s become an issue as climate change causes dangerously dry conditions across the Western U.S. In 2020, for instance, when Colorado had the three largest wildfires in its history, the state struggled to secure the aircraft it needed because there were also fires burning in New Mexico, California and several other states.
“We need to be able to control our aerial capacity,” Polis said before signing Senate Bill 161 at Centennial Airport hangar beside Colorado’s first Firehawk, a hulking chopper painted red and white and emblazoned in the state logo. “We do some of that through contract work. But we can also do it, which is a lot better value for taxpayers on an ongoing basis, by purchasing some equipment that is good for decades.”
State fire officials estimated earlier this year that it would cost about $2.5 million annually for an additional 150-day contract for a large air tanker, such as a British Aerospace 146. The Firehawk will operate year-round, though the state will have to hire and pay pilots and is responsible for the choppers’ maintenance.
The first Firehawk is expected to go into service in the coming weeks once testing and finishing touches are complete. The second chopper could be ready to go as soon as next summer.
The helicopters join two single-engine Pilatus PC-12s in Colorado’s aerial firefighting fleet. But those planes can only track blazes, not put them out.
Other states have much larger wildfire-fighting aircraft fleets.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, for instance, owns a fleet of more than 50 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 owns nine helicopters that battle fires. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources also owns a number of wildfire-fighting planes.
Polis said his administration doesn’t have plans to buy more Firehawks or other firefighting aircraft in the near future.
“We’re always going to analyze cost benefit,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have the air support we need when we have a fire — and then we’re going to look at the most efficient way to get that.”
The Firehawks are expected to be in service for upward of three decades, though they do require a lot of maintenance.
Mike Morgan, who leads the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said the Firehawk is the most versatile tool the state could have purchased. It doesn’t need to return to an airport after dropping water on flames like a fixed-wing plane. The helicopter can simply dip its snorkel in a pond or pool and quickly fill up for its next drop.
Another plus: It has an external water tank instead of carrying a bucket, meaning it can fly over homes and roadways that otherwise must be evacuated when other, bucket-wielding firefighting helicopters are in use.
“This is probably the best tool in the toolbox we can ask for,” he said.
The first Firehawk will be stationed at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Jefferson County, though it can be moved around the state and positioned in areas that are forecast to have high fire danger. It’s unclear where the second chopper will be based.