DENVER – Concerned about the potential of fires sparked by July 4th fireworks, Gov. John Hickenlooper held a press conference Tuesday to urge Coloradans to use caution and obey any bans or open fire restrictions in communities and campgrounds.
Hickenlooper said he initiated discussion of a firefighting fleet shared by states in the region during the Western Governors’ Association meeting last week in Utah.
Earlier this year, the governor had suggested the regional air fleet as an alternative to a bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Gardner(R-Colorado Springs) and Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction), to create a state firefighting air corps. Hickenlooper signed the bill into law, but Democrats rejected funding the $17 million program.
“We can do this more cheaply by working with other states,” said Hickenlooper.
King had stressed the importance of having large air tankers immediately accessible to prevent fires from raging out of control. The senator said a state-managed fleet could be dispatched within minutes instead of waiting for approval to utilize federal air tankers which typically take more than 48 hours – if they’re available.
A regional firefighting fleet may also hinge on the availability of equipment, prioritizing the critical fires and securing approval for deployment. A state-owned fleet, King contended, could be dispatched to fight fires in nearby states and Colorado would be compensated.
In June, multiple fires erupted across Colorado, including the Black Forest fire that killed two people and destroyed more than 500 homes north of Colorado Springs. The threat of fires has diminished because of rains and higher humidity in the state. Currently there is no statewide ban on open fires.
The four military air tankers that fought the Black Forest fire and blazes in West Fork are being deployed Wednesday to Arizona to combat fires. Tragedy struck Sunday when 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the elite firefighting crew, were killed in the blaze near Prescott, Arizona.
Though Colorado will not have access to the large air tankers maintained by the federal government, the state does have smaller firefighting aircraft available. According to the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center, Colorado has access to roughly 40 helicopters and seven small air tankers, including two contracted by the state.
Hickenlooper said the regional firefighting plan will take time to develop. In the meantime, he encouraged residents living in high-risk areas near forests to protect their homes through mitigation.
“Make sure you don’t have mulch around your house, clear the brush back away from your house, make sure you don’t have trees right up against your house,” advised Hickenlooper.