Catch wildfires before they grow: State to buy firefighting helicopter as part of legislation

Colorado is looking to purchase a Firehawk helicopter, which will better allow them to respond to fires quickly, hopefully putting them out before they spread. (Courtesy Sikorsky/Skip Robinson)

The three largest wildfires in the state of Colorado’s history all occurred last year, with each of them having started out small. A bipartisan bill soon to be introduced in the state Legislature would buy a specialized helicopter to fight fires fast, while they are still small.

State Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, who represents the 8th Congressional District that includes Moffat County and serves on the state’s Joint Budget Committee, is a prime sponsor on a package of bills meant to address wildfire prevention, one of which purchases a Firehawk helicopter.

“It’s a helicopter that can fly fast, survive wind currents, and we can get it to fires very quickly and get them out before they explode like (East) Troublesome,” Rankin said. “The number of fires, relative to past years, really show that we have to do a much more aggressive job than we did in the past, because we have more fires.”

The Firehawk also can fight fires at night, when wind and heat are generally lower.

There is bipartisan support for buying the helicopter, and it was proposed by Gov. Jared Polis in his budget for the upcoming fiscal year. It’s part of a $78 million package for wildfire relief, mitigation and prevention.

On Wednesday, Polis thanked Rankin and the bill’s House sponsor Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, during his State of the State address.

It “will help give Colorado the tools we need to catch and suppress wildfires before they get out of hand,” Polis remarked.

McCluskie said Colorado Department of Public Safety officials identified the Firehawk as a “game changer” when it comes to locating and suppressing fires quickly when they start.

Multual aid agreements require Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighters to respond to any fire within the district, but sometimes they cannot get to a fire with their vehicles.

“One of the primary goals of having helicopters available in our region is to respond to smoke reports and potentially spot fires as they are in their starting phase,” Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli said.

While fighting the Middle Fork Fire north of Steamboat last fall, Cerasoli said, a fire had started in a sagebrush area and was spreading fast. Some helicopters were able to divert and dump a few buckets of water before it was able to spread very far.

“The key is to catch fires very early, so having that air support is a tremendous asset for us,” Cerasoli said.

A Los Angeles County Firehawk helicopter drops its 1000 gallon tank of water on a fire. The newest version of the aircraft can refill the tank in just 45 seconds. (Courtesy Kisorsky/Ryan Ling)

The firefighting aircraft is converted from a Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter by United Rotorcraft based in Englewood and costs about $24 million. Such an aircraft is not owned by the state; instead, Colorado opts to lease the aircraft when needed.

“We use helicopters extensively, but they are those with the bucket underneath,” Rankin said. “(The Firehawk) can get on to the small fires in bad conditions much more quickly.”

The Firehawk doesn’t use a bucket. Instead it has a tank mounted to the bottom that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water, about three times the capacity as the bucket, and can be filled in just 45 seconds. The chopper can carry about a dozen fully geared firefighters to allow them fast access to a fire.

With the tank full of water, it can still maneuver at about 140 mph. If a water source is within 6 miles of the wildfire, the Firehawk can drop up to 16,000 gallons of water an hour.

“(Los Angeles) County pioneered this. They came to Sikorsky in the very late 1990’s,” said Frans Jurgens, a spokesperson for Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin.

In the early 2000s, Los Angeles County, California, got three Firehawks — each of which are still in use — and pioneered how to fight fires with them, Jurgens said. Now Los Angeles County owns five, San Diego, owns one and Cal Fire, California’s forest and fire protection department, owns three, with nine more currently on order. Jurgens said there is interest in the helicopters from other western states as well.

“The military design of the Blackhawk is key also to this mission because you need a battle grade aircraft that can carry 8,000 pounds of water, drop it and do that multiple times throughout the course of the day,” Jurgens said.

When purchased, the helicopter will be controlled by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, which is part of the state’s Department of Public Safety. The helicopter can be used for other missions, too, like search and rescue, increasing capabilities the contracted fleet cannot currently meet year-round.

One of the bills in the package Rankin is working on is a supplemental budget bill that moves about $13 million into three different funds. Rankin said because the bill is supplemental, the money could be spent now, rather than waiting for the new fiscal year. A third bill in the package would implement recommendations around wildfire mitigation.

“The forests are in bad shape, and when a small fire starts, it can explode quickly,” Rankin said. “We have funds for mitigation, we have funds for protection and suppression, and we have funds for restoration.”

The bill gives grants to local governments to get local resources to carry out mitigation efforts. Still, this can get complicated because forests often involve several different levels of government.

Cerasoli said he is active with the newly formed Routt County Fire Mitigation Council, and they are working on both education and mitigation campaigns.

“If we can all partner to address the highest risk area first and working from there, then mitigation efforts can do a lot of good,” he said.

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