Colorado Springs campaigning to host facility for aerial firefighting research

Colorado Firefighting Air Corps

(Originally published February 4, 2015; updated February 12, 2015)


An organization in Colorado Springs is hoping the city will host the state’s new Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. The Center was authorized in legislation signed by Governor John Hickenlooper last May which also provided funds for firefighting helicopters and air tankers. The state began contracting for helicopters last summer, and purchased two Pilatus PC-12 fixed wing aircraft to be used for the early detection and persistent surveillance of wildfires. Lawmakers also appropriated  $700,000 to establish and operate the Center in its first year, which is expected to be 2015.

The purpose of the Center, according to the legislation, is 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.

One of the members of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance trying to land the Center in their city is Tony Kern, former national aviation director for the U.S. Forest Service.

Below is an excerpt from an article at

…The center, to be opened before the end of this year, will bring at least eight jobs. But more importantly, it could spark interest from companies working to develop technology for innovative wildland firefighting, Kern says, and prompt them to set up offices here.

“We have had the two largest wildland-urban interface fires in America in the last three to four years,” Kern says, referring to the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. “We have the experience and the background. We are motivated and experienced in that whole area.”

In addition, Kern points out, the region offers a central location on the heavily populated Front Range; proximity to military assets that could become part of the research effort, including Fort Carson’s helicopter unit and the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base; and an airport with low rates of weather-related closure and few traffic delays for take-off, due largely to its low number of commercial flights.

Ryan May Hardy wrote an article for the Colorado Springs Gazette on February 12 with more details about the competition for the site of the Center.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

9 thoughts on “Colorado Springs campaigning to host facility for aerial firefighting research”

  1. “Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting” Huh.

    Sounds wonderful in theory, but they’re wasting their time, money and credibility if they feel that microchips and composites will solve the current systemic problems. Until there is a wholesale, complete, utter, seismic, top-down ego-free and genuine overhaul of the national aerial fire program(s), it’s a fool’s errand. Technology will not solve the current issues, what’s required is a different way of Managing, Dispatching and Contracting the toys in use today and in the future.

    You can boast the planet’s finest air attack program running nothing more than a bunch of piston-powered ’50s airplanes and Vietnam-era helicopters. Conversely, you can equip yourself with the latest Über-Gen assets and still suffer a dysfunctional, wasteful, inefficient operation.

    It ain’t what you have, it’s how you use it.

  2. Chris, beyond the summary in this post, the legislation does indeed include the purpose of evaluating “sustainable contracting and value propositions to determine which technologies and contract vehicles are most advantageous and cost-effective to entities performing or providing aerial firefighting.” Key word: sustainable. If we want to think 20 years ahead about our planet, let’s find aircraft that can fly another 20 years and put them under 20-year contracts. (Maybe like the Alberta contract. See: )

    1. Good point John, and I remain cautiously optimistic. I should temper my opinions, as several states have demonstrated forward-thinking and effective aerial fire management strategies. The trouble is, Colorado is a small rectangle within a much greater fire-prone area, and still contains a good amount of federal land on which fires start, and from which they spread. The State may well develop a world-class aerial firefighting program, but will there exist the possibility of them watching helplessly as fires mismanaged on federal lands threaten to spread beyond federal jurisdiction? It’s never fun to begin suppressing a fire that roars across your boundaries on a wide front.

      Time will tell.

      1. 68% of the forested land in Colorado is federal land and the feds are responsible for IA but mutual aid agreements go part way to avoiding the “watching helplessly” problem.

        Perhaps one of the reasons Colorado elected to procure two PC-12’s for surveillance instead of initially buying or contracting for state air tankers was to be able to locate, early assess, and inform the appropriate federal land management agency of a fire on federal lands.

        Additionally, most counties in Colorado have operating agreements with the LMA’s that allow state, county, or local assets to conduct IA on a fire up to a mile inside of a federal boundary. It all looks like a step in the right direction.

  3. Funny you bring that up, John

    The 10 to 20 year contract here in the US has been in sights by many a contractor for years to recapture R and D and other associated costs….

    BUT State contracts are similar yet different in many ways…

    Just because there is a “Center of Excellence doesn’t mean there is a magic bullet in solving old ways of contracting issues.

    Break open some of that Ganga money to fund more of this…..cuz aviation is going to get expensive even in CO!!!!

  4. Here in Australia we watch closely what happens in the US with Aerial Firefighting Operations. Doesn’t always mean we learn and adopt but we do watch. Large Air Tankers have just arrived here. The facilities to operate them from are far and few but what we have been successful in adopting is the most cost effective method of applying new technologies. NSW-Rural Fire Service is the largest player in Australia. Their adoption of Australia’s newest Water Enhancer for initial attack and knocking out spot over long term retardant lines is saving them around $1700.00 every 1000 gallon loaded and getting the job done just as effeciently. Feed back reports say, “it made a very busy season boring”. It is operations just like the one being implemented here which has brought about adoption of new and better technologies. Keep doing what we’ve always done will only result in getting what we’ve always got. I applaud the program and wish you all success.

  5. Hi John, I’m not sure which water enhancing product you’re using in NSW, but its value over long-term retardant is realized when you have instant follow-up with ground crews (ie: your RFS and CFA). This is a luxury we don’t always have in North America due to our lack of similar volunteer fire brigades in rural areas. There are often a certain number of fires we must action by air to hold until ground crews become available, and this is what long-term retardant is designed to do (with limitations).

    Anyway, at the risk of hijacking this thread, we also watch what you are doing in Australia. When you state large airtankers “have just arrived here”, one has to wonder if you include the previous deployments of North American airtankers (C-130, DC-10, CV-580)? LATs seem to be endlessly trialed in Australia, without a commitment for a long-term contract. NSW is intending to conduct yet another one-year trial for a 15000+ litre airplane at the end of this year, even though this year’s trial LATs have flown operationally in VIC, SA and are today en route to WA. With all respect, what will it take for the appropriate agencies to decide upon and commit to a large airtanker for a multiple-season contract?

  6. I like Chris’s last statement “The equipment is only as good as the user”. This Colorado Firefighting Corps is looking for gold, first they thought they wanted to be tanker company now they want to sit on the side lines and come up with BS that means nothing. The industry surely doesn’t need more reports / reviews etc… The USFS already has a ton of useless paper they don’t use. It’s just another government job / contract that does nothing but collect $$$. I also don’t understand the PC12 purchase, just more jobs doing basically nothing. If you need an airplane to tell you where the fire is, it’s to late! I guess it’s still who you know, not what you do. You can’t fight fires without tankers. It would seem that acquiring tankers would have been the priority. Since $$$ from the government is flowing freely, just buy NEW C130J’s, in the mind set that seems to be going around there worth the 65 mil for the 200 yearly hours they’ll fly – just another bad joke.

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