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Colorado's First Aerial Firefighting Fleet Is Born

DENVER (CBS4) – Gov. John Hickenlooper says it's time to prepare for fighting fires and on Monday he signed a bill into law creating the state's first aerial fire fleet.

After two of the worst fire seasons ever seen in Colorado, experts say this year will be an average one. An average fire season means to expect 155 square miles of Colorado to burn in wildfires. That's the size of the city of Denver.

The new Colorado Firefighter Air Corp will consist of four copters and four planes, including high-tech spotter planes.

"I'm calling it game changing because our traditional method of operations, if somebody reports smoke, the local jurisdictions send people out to find it. With this we can go behind a band of lighting and we can tell the locals where all the fires are," said Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Paul Cooke.

The spotter planes are equipped with infrared cameras that show fire behavior, where a fire has been, where it's going, where the embers are blowing, and send that information in real time to incident command.

"There's nobody to my knowledge in the United States using this type of technology to make a difference in early detection," said Cooke.

Sen. Steve King, R-Mesa County, fought two years to make the fleet a reality, joining forces with Senate President Morgan Carroll.

"This really came together after Colorado's budget was closed. It was not a small lift and we really saw an unprecedented number of people pull together," said Carroll.

The shared concern is the federal fleet is down to nine heavy tankers for the entire country, and Colorado is a state with four million dead trees around its watersheds.

"You have a catastrophic fire in a watershed, you will be changing that watershed for generations to come," said King.

"Getting to these fires early makes all the difference in the world," said Hickenlooper.

The new fleet will cost $21 million but suppression costs last year alone added up to $48 million.

The bill is one of more than a dozen passed this session in response to fires and floods. The governor signed two others into law on Monday dealing with prescribed burns and mitigation.

Wildfire Resources

- Visit's Wildfire Resources section.

- Read recent Wildfire stories.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

- See images from the most destructive wildfires (Black Forest, Waldo Canyon, High Park and Fourmile) and largest wildfire (Hayman) in Colorado history.

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