Wednesday, March 20, 2013

More firefighting planes for Colorado?

Posted by on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 3:44 PM

Two state senators are calling for the state of Colorado to create their own wildland firefighting fleet of planes to ensure timely response to blazes as they erupt in our tinder-dry forests.

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Sens. Steve King and Cheri Jahn are to hold a news conference tomorrow, Thursday, to announce a bill that would create the fire fleet, according to King's aide, John Meeks.

How much such a fleet would cost the government isn't clear, but it might wind up saving more in assets than it costs, by a long shot.

In Colorado Springs alone, nearly 350 homes were destroyed in last year's Waldo Canyon Fire, which could have an aggregate value of more than $120 million. The fire burned 18,247 acres of the Pike National Forest and private land surrounding it.

Last year, the federal government spent $2,241,809 on air operations for the Waldo Canyon fire, according to the U.S. Forest Service's Narrative Summary, obtained by the Independent.

The air operations section of the report states that helicopters, air tankers and air attack aircraft flew 450 hours and dropped 153,258 gallons of retardant.

The report also suggests that cost was a chief concern in deployment of resources. Here's one passage:

Cost containment was achieved by the Air Branch through the following actions:
* Judicious use of retardant and water dropping aircraft during active fire behavior.
* Kept the Helibase staffing to essential minimums.
* Release of excess helicopter and personnel when fire activity no longer warranted their use.
* Utilization of exclusive use helicopters to the degree possible.

Here's another portion of the report indicating a shortage of resources:

Due to the high request on aircraft, GPS flights for mapping the fire perimeter were only completed on 7/2. Infrared imagery was requested each night but was incomplete for 7/2 to 7/6 due to a lack of aircraft, other priority fires and weather.

And then there's this notation, also suggesting problems mobilizing aircraft:

The primary Operational issue was incorporating the Military Aircraft into our Air Operation. At one point we were conferring with Air National Guard, Regular Army, and National Guard. Through a series of discussions involving Air Operations and Military personnel a positive relationship was established letting military aircraft contribute to the suppression effort.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall met with military officials in August to discuss the response, including air support, as we reported here.

We've also reported that people observed aircraft depart from the Waldo fire, and it's unclear why or how much of a factor that might have played.

Here's a look at the "Fire Wars" presentation given by Bill Scott, retired former flight test engineer and aviation journalist, which was part of an Economic Warfare Institute briefing to Congress on July 9, 2012, in Washington, D.C. The briefing reportedly was part of the inspiration for Colorado's proposal.

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