On May 12 Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will sign the legislation recently passed by the House and the Senate that authorizes the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire a fleet of helicopters and air tankers to fight wildfires.
The Governor will host a press conference at 11 a.m. at the Centennial Airport where he will sign the bill and give his annual wildfire briefing.
Colorado Senate Bill 14-164 appropriates $19.67 million and specifies that the CFAC purchase, lease, or contract for the use and operation of up to three helicopters in 2014. Beginning in 2015 and beyond the bill authorizes up to four air tankers.
The first version of the bill required certain specifications for the aircraft, including that the helicopters be able to carry 18 passengers and be capable of rappelling firefighters. The air tankers would have been outfitted for dropping retardant at night, something that has never been done on a regular basis.
On Friday the Colorado Senate unanimously passed a revised version of SB14-164, completing another step towards the state being able to issue contracts for firefighting aircraft. If the House passes the same version of the bill, this year there would be up to three helicopters fighting wildland fires in the state and in 2015 they could add up to four large air tankers to the fleet.
This version of the bill is very different from the one that was first introduced, which listed numerous specific requirements for the types and capabilities of the aircraft, including night flying air tankers, which would have been the first on the planet Earth.
The configuration of the bill allows and actually states, that the legislators intend for the subject matter experts that will work for the Colorado Firefighting Air Corp (CFAC) to make the decisions about the specifications of the aircraft. The legislation when it was introduced took many of those decisions out of the hands of the fire aviation specialists. Instead, they were made by politicians who had no applicable expertise. The current version passed by the Senate requires that the CFAC adhere as nearly as possible to the recommendations as presented in the Special report: Colorado firefighting Air Corp, report to the Governor and General Assembly on strategies to enhance the state’s aerial firefighting capabilities, which was released March 28, 2014.
The bill allows the CFAC to use 19.3 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, or employees, in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2014. A previously passed bill, “FY 2014-15 Long Bill”, appropriated $19.67 million for the Division of Fire Prevention and Control to acquire aircraft.
The legislation also creates a “center of excellence for advanced technology aerial firefighting”, to…:
Serve as a laboratory to evaluate the “three fundamental contributing factors to successful aerial firefighting: effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability”.
Conduct research to evaluate new technology in a variety of settings, such as initial attack, night operations, and operations in wildland-urban interface areas.
Produce data and documentation on science and technology relevant to aerial firefighting.
Since the Senate has passed the bill, it is now up to the House, where it was introduced April 25 and referred to the Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources Committee.
Recently there have been two proposals for enhancing the aerial firefighting capability in the state of Colorado. A bill has been introduced with very specific requirements for aircraft, and the new but unfunded state agency, Colorado Firefighting Air Corp (CFAC), issued a report with different recommendations.
As you can see below in the table that we put together, the two proposals are very different.
One of the unusual features of the proposed legislation is the requirement that the large air tankers be capable of night operations. As far as we know, no wildland firefighting agency in the world has routinely conducted fixed wing retardant drops at night. Dropping retardant at 150 miles per hour at 100 to 150 feet above the ground in mountainous terrain with turbulent wind conditions is very difficult in daylight conditions. The proposal by the state senators to attempt to do it at night would be a huge leap above and beyond the current norm.
We asked Senator King, who has been very active in recent months about acquiring better aerial firefighting capacity for Colorado, for his impression of the recommendations in the CFAC report that came out seven days after his bill was introduced. He said he is willing to modify his bill:
[The CFAC proposal] reiterates that the state of Colorado desperately needs aerial resources to increase our rapid-response capabilities and the effectiveness of firefighters on the ground. While SB14-164 has been criticized for being too prescriptive, we needed a jumping-off point and myself and President Carroll would be more than willing to incorporate Director Cooke’s recommendations into the bill.
Increase the number of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) on exclusive use contracts from two to four.
Contract for the exclusive use of four Type 3 or larger rotor-wing aircraft. (Type 3 helicopters can carry 100 to 300 gallons.)
Contract for the exclusive use of two Type 2 or larger air tankers. (Type 2 air tankers can carry 1,800 to 3,000 gallons). The contingency, if the State is unable to contract for two air tankers, is to contract for two helitankers, or a combination of one fixed-wing air tanker and one helitanker.
Develop early detection and remote sensing capabilities by securing two fixed wing aircraft equipped with modern fire-detecting sensors that would be operated to actively identify and locate small fires in high-risk wildland and wildland urban interface areas. The report explains that these aircraft will help achieve “the goal of generating an incident assessment for every fire within 60 minutes of report or detection”.
In addition to assessing every fire from an aircraft within 60 minutes, the report also recommends that the “appropriate aviation suppression resources be delivered to the fire” within 60 minutes. These two goals, if accomplished, would be a major step forward, not only for the state of Colorado, but for most states and federal agencies. Of course CAL FIRE can usually deliver retardant to a fire within 20 minutes of the first report, but that is a very high bar.
The state government of Colorado has very little in the way of wildland fire initial attack capability, and relies on local agencies for fire protection. In fact, the report admits:
Colorado does not have the ability to deliver an appropriate and timely suppression response to small fires while they are still small.
The report mentions several alternative aircraft for acquisition and conversion to air tankers, including S-3, C-27J, and C-130 from the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. It basically threw out the S-3 for performance reasons, and said that there were no C-27Js available in the FEEP. Contrary to popular belief, it said, there were no C-130s available either. Another aircraft considered was the MD-10 that possibly could be donated by FedEx. That option was not chosen, because they:
…present much the same issue as surplus military aircraft that do not already have a proven, fielded system; that being it could add significantly to both cost and time to implement. Additionally, the age and condition of the donated aircraft could cause significant inspections and revitalization.
In addition, the cost of the engineering needed to modify the MD-10 for a retardant tank, avionics, and related equipment in order to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) could cost between $30 and $40 million. Installing the retardant system could add another $10 million for each aircraft.
In discussing the problems with locating and obtaining information about the Waldo Canyon and High Park Fires during the early stages, which together killed three people and burned 605 homes, the report said:
Colorado’s remote sensing fixed wing aircraft would be on site within approximately 30 minutes of launch and would employ thermal imaging sensors to survey the reported area. The fire would be located and mapped, and this information would be loaded in real time to the state’s information management system [a new system the report recommends] . Within an hour of the first report of smoke, the local incident commander would have access to a map of the fire, ingress and egress paths, fuels involved, fire behavior, values at risk, weather forecast, and other data needed to make informed decisions regarding the appropriate management response.
In spite of the recommendation in the report that the aircraft be provided by contractors, there is another recommendation (on page 48) saying:
…the government-owned/contractor model presents the most attractive mix of affordability and efficiency. If the initial purchase cost of the airframes precludes this option, the contractor-owned/contractor-operated model is also a reasonable approach.
Then, to confuse the issue further, in the next paragraph it says:
It is not recommended to pursue the government operated model.
The report optimistically expects that the contracted helicopters and air tankers would begin operations within six months of “program initiation”. Apparently the state of Colorado has a contracting department that is many times more effective than the one operated by the U.S. Forest Service, but that is a very low bar.
They expect the two Type 2 or larger air tankers to cost $11.9 million and the four Type 3 or larger helicopters to cost $4.7 million for exclusive use contracts each year. It appears they want to purchase the two “multi-mission fixed wing aircraft” at a cost of $10 million plus $1.7 million for operations, maintenance, and training.
The total cost for the aviation program, including miscellaneous costs for insurance, equipment, hangar leases, etc, would be $33.6 million the first year and $23.6 million in subsequent years.
Two state senators in Colorado have introduced a bill in the legislature, Senate Bill 164, that would authorize the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire helicopters and air tankers for the newly created agency.
For the 2014 fire season the bill authorizes the acquisition by lease or contract of up to three helicopters, and in 2015 up to four “large aircraft”, presumably fixed wing air tankers. If they obtain three helicopters, one must be capable of “command and control” and another would be a Type 1 heavy ship that would have rappel ability and could carry up to 18 passengers. The air tankers must be capable of night flying operations.
The bill was introduced by President of the Senate Morgan Carroll and Senator Steve King on March 21, 11 days before the CFAC Director Paul Cooke is due to release a report on April Fools Day that would recommend the direction the new agency should take.
The bill that created the CFAC last year did not appropriate funds to operate the agency or acquire aircraft. The new bill just introduced does not yet specify a monetary amount, but it will be referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a fiscal note attachment and then sent to the Joint Budget Committee for recommendations on funding.
If the final version of the bill includes funding, getting it past Governor John Hickenlooper could be a challenge. He was quoted by the Durango Herald as expressing the belief that farmers and ranchers should be the first line of defense in fighting wildfires. However, the fact that one of the cosponsors of the bill is the President of the Senate is a sign that it has a chance of passing the legislature, and perhaps even overriding a veto.
A Colorado state senator will be introducing legislation that would provide $9 million for four helicopters and an air tanker to suppress wildfires. A bill approved last year created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) but failed to appropriate any funds to run the agency or acquire any aviation assets.
The legislation specifies that a contract be issued for one Type 1 air tanker or a very large air tanker and four helicopters.
(The rest of the story, including the permanent acquisition of four air tankers, is on Wildfire Today.)