Colorado's newest state-contracted Large Airtanker, called Tanker 10, proved its worth within an hour of the contract signing.
Around 1 p.m on June 24, state officials signed an exclusive-use contract with Neptune Aviation for the airtanker — a British Aerospace 146-200 aircraft, also called BAe-146. Less than 45 minutes later, it was flying over the Muddy Slide Fire and the Oil Springs Fire, helping crews in other aircraft, as well as firefighters on the ground, said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
He was one of several officials who spoke at a press conference Thursday at the Jeffco Airtanker Base in Broomfield, which Tanker 10 will call home when it's not in the field.
“It was truly a godsend," he said. "And again, we appreciate the support from the legislature and the governor and providing those tools to us and to our firefighters on the ground that really need these resources to help support them. Keep them safe and keep communities safe.”
This exclusive-use contract means that the airtanker will be ready for Colorado's specific needs throughout 2021. Previously, the state had to compete for resources with 18 other western states that face wildfires, Morgan said.
“Because of the growing fire problem in Colorado and the threats to Colorado and its citizens, we are working very hard to make sure that we have additional assets under our operational control, which is where the contract comes in between the division in Neptune, so that this particular aircraft is positioned in use in Colorado for Colorado's needs instead of a national need," he said.
He said he believes the airtanker can get to any corner of Colorado within 30 minutes from the airtanker base.
"When you look at fire growth and fire development being able to have this coming in to support your local fire agency to keep a fire small within 30 to 45 minutes versus four to six hours, that makes all the difference in the world," he said.
The contract for Tanker 10 is the result of Senate Bill 21-049, which also extended the state's aviation contracts for single-engine airtankers and helicopters and provides money to help provide early support for fire chiefs and sheriff's offices when wildfires first break out. The latter is expected to help control fires before they become large.
The state does not have an airtanker base, so Morgan thanked the U.S. Forest Service and Jeffco Airtanker Base for allowing the tanker to stay there.
“Our success in fighting fires is really based upon the partnerships and the relationships that we have established," he said.
DFPC signed a contract for Tanker 10 with Neptune Aviation, an aerial firefighting company and has been providing large airtanker services for more than 27 years around the United States, said Jennifer Draughon, president at Neptune Aviation Services.
“We're really proud of our dedicated employees and the expertise they bring to aerial firefighting. We also recognize … that the key to success in combating wildfire and protecting communities is through partnerships, which enables you to have all expertise hands-on working together to get the job done," she said.
She added that the company is looking forward to a long-term partnership with the state.
Fire seasons are now lasting 70 to 80 days longer than they did in the 1970s, Morgan said. The state has been working with its partners to develop new strategies to prepare for longer and more destructive wildland fires by shifting resources to models that respond more to the growing problem, he said. A lot of work, partnerships and conversations are working to make that happen, Morgan said.
That is now getting a boost by Senate Bill 49 as well as Senate Bill 21-113, which gave DFPC authorization to buy a Fire Hawk helicopter, which is currently being built. For now, the legislature gave DFPC money for a Type One helicopter, which is on contract and currently on the western slope, where drought is prevalent.
DFPC said Colorado should expect another year of intense wildfires this summer due to ongoing drought conditions that could worsen through the summer.
Last year, several wildfires — the Cameron Peak Fire, East Troublesome Fire and Pine Gulch Fire — grew to become the largest in Colorado's recorded history. More than 600,000 acres of forest burned in the state.
These are the state's largest wildfires, ranked by acreage:
1. Cameron Peak Fire (2020): 208,913 acres
2. East Troublesome Fire (2020): 193,812 acres
3. Pine Gulch Fire (2020): 139,007 acres
4. Hayman Fire (2002): 137,760 acres
5. Spring Fire (2018): 108,045 acres
6. High Park Fire (2012): 87,284 acres
7. Missionary Ridge Fire (2002): 72,962 acres
8. 416 Fire (2018): 54,129 acres
9. Bridger Fire (2008): 45,800 acres
10. Last Chance Fire (2012): 45,000 acres
Note: The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center said the West Fork Complex fire, which burned a total of 109,632 acres in 2013, is not included on this list since it involved three separate fires.