While Colorado burns, Republicans slam Hickenlooper for not funding air tanker fleet

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Colorado’s wildfire season ignited all at once this week, with at least five blazes claiming homes, causing evacuations and stretching the state’s firefighting capability to its limits.

It also ignited another political debate, as Republican politicians took to Twitter to complain that a new law authorizing the state to purchase its own fleet of air tankers was amended to make funding the program discretionary rather than mandatory.

As a result, Colorado has the legal clearance to buy up to three 3,000-gallon large air tankers and three tactical aircraft, but no money has been appropriated for the purchases.

Aircraft from other states have been summoned to help fight fires in southern and central Colorado, but when the most destructive one flared up — the Black Forest fire, which by Wednesday afternoon has destroyed as many as 100 homes in a neighborhood north of Colorado Springs — bill sponsor Sen. Steve King texted fellow Republican Sen. Greg Brophy with the message “no aircraft available.”

King called the lack of funding for the air tanker fleet the “biggest failure” of the Democratic-dominated legislative session.

“Colorado has four million acres of dead trees and we are one lightning strike, one accidental match strike, one intentional arsonist or terrorist match strike away from a catastrophic fire that will change Colorado for generations to come,” King said. “God help us and our lower basin neighbors if one of those catastrophic fires are in our watersheds.”

Had the bill been fully funded, the planes wouldn’t have been available for these fires, Brophy said, “but what’s happening right now underscores how important it is to take this action because we will have fires again next year.”

The airplanes will cost the state $17.5 million in initial funding and about $7 million per year in maintenance. Brophy said there was money available to start building the fleet.

“We identified numerous sources for the funds,” he said. “We just had no leadership from the first floor, none. The governor failed to make basic security for folks in that wildland-urban interface a priority.”

Wildfires are common in Colorado, which is enduring years-long drought conditions combined with a beetle epidemic that has filled state forests with dead trees to fuel the fires. Rarely have so many broken out at once and firefighting efforts are further hampered by forecasts of record-breaking temperatures in the coming days with little or no precipitation.

“Colorado is heading into a period where we will have above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation, so the fire danger will increase,” said Boyd Lebeda, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, in a press release.

The largest fire, burning at around 4,000 acres in the Royal Gorge in southern Colorado, was originally thought to have threatened the Royal Gorge Bridge, a state historical landmark, but fire managers said Wednesday that they believe it to be OK.

Although it was the legislature that changed the fleet’s funding from mandatory to discretionary, some lawmakers, including King, met with Hickenlooper’s staff before he signed the bill to encourage him to find funding somewhere.

“If they wanted to,” he said, “there’s no doubt in my mind they could find the money to do it.”

In a press release on Wednesday, Hickenlooper said the original bill didn’t identify any funding sources for the cost of the air tanker fleet and said that spending money on planes, pilots, mechanics and aircraft hangers would represent a “massive fiscal impact.”

Lawmakers were prompted to introduce the air tanker fleet bill, which passed with bipartisan support, after one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in state history last year.

“It’s very frustrating,” King said. “I think this is one of the tenants of government. You’re there for public order, you’re there for public safety and this apparently doesn’t rise above the radar for this administration, for this governor and for the Democrat majority in the House and Senate.”

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