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Efforts Continue To Bring Firefighting Air Fleet To Colorado

An air tanker drops slurry (credit: CBS)

An air tanker drops slurry (credit: CBS)

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GALLERIES: COLORADO'S WORST WILDFIRES

DENVER (CBS4)- Supporters of a plan to bring Colorado its own fleet of firefighting air tankers are continuing efforts to make that plan a reality.

A special task force met to discuss the proposal on Friday.

In a perfect world Colorado’s own air tanker fleet would include at least three tankers, three smaller planes and three helicopters.

The fleet would be funded in part by funds from the state and in part by private industry. The planes could be outfitted with advertising to help fund the service.

The estimated cost to get the fleet off the ground is $17 million.

So far this year Colorado has spent nearly $40 million to put out fires.

When the Black Forest Fire erupted in June it took nearly six hours before the first federal air tanker arrived.

By then the fire had already burned more than a dozen homes.

“I guess I’ll begin by telling you if you’re waiting for the feds to come, they’re not coming,” said Former National Aviation Director Tony Kern.

The former head of the federal fleet told the task force that it’s time Colorado went it alone.

Kern was among a dozen experts who testified before lawmakers considering a Colorado fleet of air tankers.

The state legislature refused to fund it earlier this year citing more study was needed.

“As disappointing as that was I think there is now momentum,” said Sen. Steve King, a Republican representing Mesa County.

King sponsored the original bill. He believes Black Forest was a tipping point for those who weren’t sure before.

“Everybody in Colorado, especially the Colorado Springs area are saying, ‘Here we go again,’” said King.

The federal government has just eight tankers left, most are WWII era planes.

Kern said Colorado has an opportunity to build not only a fleet but a high-tech firefighting industry complete with satellites, night vision googles and laser targeting.

Not everyone is sold on the idea.

“I’m wary of the bright, shiny object,” said Rep. Claire Levy, a Democrat representing Boulder County. “I just want to be sure if I dedicate a bunch of state money to airplanes that is the most effective use of that money.”

King said with four million acres of dead trees and watersheds at risk we can’t afford not to fund the plan.

“Property and precious lives are lost when we don’t address this issue,” said King.

The Division of Fire Prevention is studying what Colorado needs in terms of air support and whether it would be better to partner with other states.

Any fleet created for Colorado would be modeled after California’s. Cal Fire said they are able to respond within 20 minutes to any fire in the state. About 95 percent of those fires are contained to 10 acres or less.