Hickenlooper touts wildfire prevention bills, won’t back state tanker fleet

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Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, address reporters at the Capitol on Thursday.

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DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper expressed support for eight bills aimed at combat wildfires, including tax incentives for mitigation and funding to buy better equipment for firefighters.

But the package of legislation didn’t include many of the more aggressive suggestions from the governor’s own wildfire task force, such as building codes and fees on forest property owners.

The governor also said he’s not ready to support a Republican proposal to create a state-owned fleet of air tankers to respond more quickly to wildfires across the state.

“The benefit doesn’t justify the cost,” Hickenlooper said.

“Some of these large tankers can run $12,000 an hour when you’re deploying them,” he continued, noting that tankers wouldn’t have helped slow some of last year’s worst wildfires that were driven by high winds, which kept tankers grounded at times.

“We know they work – on occasion. We know other times, you can fly 100 runs and the only thing that stops that fire is that the wind changes or the fire finally comes up on some physical boundary where the fuel source changes.”

At the end of a 30-minute press conference at the Capitol, Hickenlooper invited Sen. Steve King, who has pushed hard for the state-owned tanker fleet, to join him at the podium.

King, R-Grand Junction, said the threat of a wildfire causing runoff contamination to Colorado’s water supply presents “a clear and present danger” to the state.

When first asked his thoughts on the overall package, King tried to be diplomatic.

“I think it’s a good start,” he said.

But when pressed on whether he’s disappointed about the governor’s reluctance to support an air-tanker fleet, he had no choice but to state his position on the issue, awkwardly contradicting the governor who stood just to his right.

“I think there is an opportunity, an opportunity to deal with this,” he said, noting that California’s fleet of 23 tankers, which were paid for by the federal government, “can respond to fires in 20 minutes.

“I think there are opportunities here to model in some ways Cal Fire and make that cost-effective.”

Hickenlooper, the acting director of the Western Governors Association, said other western governors support efforts to increase the size of the federal firefighting fleet to ensure there are enough tankers to fight fires across the west.

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