King pressures Hickenlooper to OK state air tanker fleet


A C-130 slurry bomb drops fire retardant on a demonstration run at Centennial Airport Wednesday morning organized by a lawmaker urging the state to start its own air tanker fleet.

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CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- After spending a week in California learning about Cal Fire, the only state-run fleet or firefighting air tankers in the country, state Sen. Steve King is pushing hard for Colorado to purchase its own fleet that can be active by this summer's wildfire season.

"I've held my tongue for a couple years on this issue, but the time is now," King told reporters who turned up at Centennial Airport early Wednesday morning to see a flying demonstration featuring the kind of helicopters and planes his legislation calls for the state to lease.

"But the time is now. We've got 42 days left in this legislative session. It is time for Gov. Hickenlooper to get in the game."

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has been skeptical about the state investing millions in the lease and operation of its own air tanker fleet.

"Some of these large tankers can run $12,000 an hour when you're running them," Hickenlooper said back in January when he announced a package of wildfire mitigation efforts. "I'm not sure that's a wise investment, especially because many of them can't fly when it's too windy or at night."

King, who noted the state spent $48 million fighting wildfires last year, can afford to make the investment, as California has done for 40 years.

"Their response to a fire is 20 minutes; and they respond with an air tanker," King said.  "We are one lightning strike, one errant match strike, one intentional arsonist's strike, one terrorist's strike away from catastrophic fire; and if it's in our watershed, it will change Colorado's water for generations."

King's legislation, which would direct the state to buy or lease three Type One helicopters from the federal government this year at a cost of $8-12 million, is up for its first hearing at the Capitol next week.

Right now, there's no money in the budget to pay for the fleet; but Senate President Morgan Carroll, a Democrat, has signed onto King's legislation as a co-sponsor.

Further, a state study on the need for an air tanker fleet, prompted by a bill King passed last year, is due out next week.

The Denver Post editorial board Tuesday urged lawmakers to wait for that report before acting on King's proposal, which it termed a "just do something" approach to wildfires.

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