DENVER (CBS4)– Colorado is a step closer to having its own fleet of air tankers. A state Senate committee approved legislation on Thursday that could dramatically change how the state fights wildfires.

The bill passed unanimously out of committee on Thursday. The next big test will be the Senate Appropriations Committee to see if they will approve the high cost.

The cost is $17 million to get it off the ground, but supporters of the bill point out that last year’s fire season wasn’t cheap, either. Air tankers were brought in from Canada at one point to help fight wildfires here during the state’s most destructive wildfire year.

The potential for another devastating wildfire is very real once again this year with severe drought conditions across the state. Add that to four million acres of dead trees from beetle kill and the scenario can be scary.

“We are one lightning strike, one match strike, one arson match strike away from a catastrophic fire that could change Colorado forever,” said Sen. Steve King, a Republican representing Mesa County.

King and Sen. Cheri Jahn, a Democrat representing Wheat Ridge, have teamed up on the bill to bring Colorado its own fleet of air tankers. They believe it is time Colorado got serious about defending itself.

“We are spending millions of dollars every single year and it’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse,” said Jahn.

The federal government has just nine air tankers left to cover the entire U.S. The planes are World War II era and literally falling apart.

“If another one of those suffers a fatal crash it is very possible they could ground the entire fleet. I’d hate to think where we’d be at that point in time,” said Colorado State Fire Chiefs spokesman Steve Pischke.

Supporters believe if Colorado has its own fleet it could also engage in high tech firefighting using GPS, satellites and night vision.

Tony Kern headed up the federal fleet for several years as the National Aviation Director.

“We can fly a smart bomb through Kim Jung Un’s window but we are still throwing slurry down, from 1950s technology into the wind over fires when our own citizens are at risk,” said Kern. “There is an opportunity here for someone to step to the forefront to be the global hub of high-technology firefighting.”

“My question is if not us, then who is going to do that? And if not now then when are we going to do that?” asked King.

Lawmakers hope to offset the cost of the air tanker fleet with advertising on the sides of planes.


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