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State Tanker Fleet? Wildfires Continue Debate

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An air tanker drops slurry (credit: CBS)

An air tanker drops slurry (credit: CBS)

GALLERIES: COLORADO'S WORST WILDFIRES

DENVER (AP) – Responding to last summer’s devastating wildfires, Colorado lawmakers passed several bills this year to prepare for future fire seasons.

But it’s a measure to establish a state-owned aerial firefighting fleet that’s getting the most attention – and partisan wrangling – as wildfire season begins with four destructive fires burning around the state. The wildfires are once again posing the question of whether enough aerial resources are available to combat them.

The federal government has 10 air tankers to combat fires, and all of them were in use Wednesday nationwide.

The Republican-sponsored bill signed into law last week created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, with a mission to buy or contract firefighting aircraft. But there was no funding attached to the measure. And without the $17.5 million needed to retrofit aerial tankers from the federal government, the newly minted state division can’t launch.

Soon after the wildfires exploded Tuesday, Republican lawmakers took to Twitter to blast Gov. John Hickenlooper and fellow Democrats for rejecting funding for the program. But even with funding, state-owned planes wouldn’t be fighting the fires now. It would take eight months to a year for the fleet to be operational, said Sen. Steve King, the bill’s Republican sponsor.

“The question is, if not now, then when?” said King, who insisted Wednesday lawmakers must act to fund his proposal before more devastating wildfires strike.

Asked about fire response Wednesday, the governor said local governments have “access to air assets” when wildfires erupt.

“We can’t do anything until the local community asks for help,” Hickenlooper said on KOA radio. “We’re trying to make sure they are aware of all the assets we have, and we make it as easy as possible for them to reach out and say, ‘All right, we need some help.'”

Although King’s bill passed with bipartisan support, not everyone agrees that funding a state firefighting fleet is money well-spent.

Democratic Rep. Claire Levy, one of the state’s budget writers, said she opposed the measure because “it ties up an awful lot of state resources in just one firefighting tool, and that tool is one of the most expensive tools that we can possibly have.”

She said she would rather work with the federal government and private contractors to use resources when they’re required, noting California’s state-owned fleet is sometimes grounded because of strong winds.

“Let’s contract for these so that we are only paying for it when we need it,” Levy said. She said she would rather the money in equipment for firefighters or more wildfire mitigation.

Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, whose Colorado Springs district has a large wildfire that has prompted thousands to evacuate, said he liked the idea of a state-owned fleet. But he also cautioned about the expense.

“It would be sort of expensive for a state to maintain its own fleet,” he said.

Last summer, fires in separate parts of the state destroyed hundreds of homes, making it one of Colorado’s worst wildfire seasons. In response, lawmakers passed a series of new laws, including tax incentives for homeowners to conduct fire mitigation on their property, and revising a prescribed burn program. Lawmakers also created a committee to meet at least once a year to review and propose laws on mitigation and forest health.

Another new law revises homeowner insurance laws to make insurance more user-friendly when someone loses a home. The changes include annual reports to homeowners about their coverage and more time for homeowners to report an inventory of lost items.

King’s bill requires the state Department of Public Safety to submit a report to lawmakers next April about the viability of a state-owned firefighting fleet.

King would like to see the state pay to retrofit three tankers, which he said would be acquired for free from the federal government because the aircraft is not currently being used. He said retrofitting the aircraft would be the most expensive part of the plan, and the state could seek partnerships with companies or sports teams to advertise on the planes to pay for the $1 million or so a year to maintain the fleet.

With millions of acres of beetle-killed trees, King warns there’s a high likelihood for catastrophic fires that damage not only property but the state watersheds.

“I certainly hope that the Legislature and this governor wake up and smell the smoke in the air. People are going to die and property is going to be lost, and it won’t be just a little,” King said.

LINK: Read The Law

- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

Wildfire Resources

- Visit CBSDenver.com’s Wildfire Resources section.

- Read recent Wildfire stories.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

- See images from the most destructive wildfires (Waldo Canyon, High Park and Fourmile) and largest wildfire (Hayman) in Colorado history.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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