- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

DENVER (AP) - Colorado lawmakers agreed Wednesday to budget $21 million for an aerial firefighting fleet designed to spot and attack wildfires faster, a response to historic back-to-back wildfire seasons.

The Senate approved the funding during debate on next year’s budget, hours after Gov. John Hickenlooper’s top fire official told lawmakers the state needs “to bring tools to the game” to battle wildfires sooner.

“Aviation is a tool,” said Paul Cooke, outlining a plan to lawmakers that calls for the state to buy two spotter planes to detect fires within an hour after the first sighting of smoke. Cooke also recommends that the state contract four helicopters and four single-engine tankers to begin fire suppression within an hour of a request from fire chiefs.

Cooke was briefing lawmakers on recommendations he issued last week.

But all that comes with a hefty price tag. So lawmakers had to budget $21 million in the budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The money is expected to come from emergency reserve funding and delaying the repayment of a cash fund.

“This is almost like getting ahead of the next emergency,” said Henry Sobanet, Hickenlooper’s budget director.

Cooke made a case for why the cost is worth it in the long run, noting that wildfires become more expensive to suppress once they get out of control. He also said fire commanders currently are hesitant to ask for air resources because they’re too expensive.

“But we’re now saying we want to provide these resources so that we can keep these fires small, so on the back end the state’s not spending millions of dollars in fire suppression,” Cooke said.

Last year, the Black Forest Fire in El Paso County alone destroyed nearly 500 homes, the most by a wildfire in state history. The year before that, the Waldo Canyon Fire in the same county also destroyed hundreds of homes.

While there’s bipartisan support for a budget amendment to fund the fleet, there is still skepticism from Democrats. Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said lawmakers should be mindful that the severity of wildfires can be cyclical, and there will be times when expensive equipment won’t be in use.

“So we’re going to have assets sitting on the ground, and we just need to know that,” he said, adding that Colorado should consider sharing the air resources with other states to offset costs.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, who has long been a proponent of a state-owned fleet, led the effort for the funding amendment with Democratic Senate President Morgan Carroll. King said before the vote that he hoped both parties could support having an aerial firefighting fleet.

“Because this is not a Republican issue, this is not a Democratic issue, this is a Colorado issue - and I would like to see a unanimous vote on that amendment,” he said.

Both chambers still need to take final votes this month on the next year’s budget, which would include funding for the aircraft.

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Read report recommending aerial firefighting fleet: http://dfs.state.co.us/

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Find Ivan Moreno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/IvanJourno

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