Friday report inconclusive on need for state air tanker fleet

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Air tanker makes retardent drop at High Park Fire, Larimer County, Colo.

Air tanker makes retardent drop at High Park Fire, Larimer County, Colo.

DENVER — A report to be published Friday will stop short of concluding that a state-run fleet of air tankers will help Colorado lower the risk of a catastrophic wildfire, FOX31 Denver has learned.

While air support has contributed to successful firefighting efforts in many cases, it’s never been the main factor in containing and controlling wildfires, according to the report.

“Weather conditions and ground crews are the two biggest things,” said Doug Young, a senior policy advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper with 15 years of experience on wildfire issues.

“With air tankers, it’s more psychological. When you see flames coming across the bend at your property, you want to see those planes in the air. But the reality is the fire is being fought on the ground.”

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, tried to publicly pressure Hickenlooper Thursday to support his legislation to direct the state to lease three helicopters or planes, calling on the governor to “get in the game.”

That didn’t sit well with Hickenlooper’s folks on the first floor of the Capitol, who have been working on the study examining Colorado’s aerial resources, which was prompted by legislation King carried last year.

King is scheduled to meet Friday with Hickenlooper’s staff to discuss a possible path forward, but the administration isn’t planning to move forward with King’s bill, which spells out exactly what type of helicopter and/or airplane the state would have to buy and would cost between $8-12 million in the first year.

“There’s no way his bill is going to pass,” said Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper’s chief strategy officer. “It’s too prescriptive. We’re glad to work with him, but it’s going to have to be on something that makes sense fiscally and that draws on the information in the report that he himself commissioned.”

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