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Firing up

Six regions, including Springs, apply for research hub

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Colorado Springs has competition for the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, with proposals having also come from Centennial, Clear Creek County, Fort Collins-Loveland Airport, City of Rifle/Garfield County, and the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport/Jefferson County.

The center, part of the state's Air Firefighting Corps created by Senate Bill 14-164 last year, will study applications of aerial firefighting and possibly pave the way for ground-breaking approaches, such as nighttime wildland firefighting, which is taboo today. (See "Lofty proposal," cover story, Jan. 28.)

Colorado Springs' bid is strong due to potential cooperation with military bases, a central location on the Front Range, and an airport that can land all sizes of aircraft but isn't overly busy, backers of the proposal have said. The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, which spearheaded the local application, did not grant an interview about the proposal, however.

Sheri Chadwick, communications director for the city of Centennial, says the city's aerospace-based economy and its location a few miles from Buckley Air Force Base are among its chief pluses. Southeast of Denver and north of Parker, Centennial has an array of aerospace firms, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin. "This concentration of leading aviation firms is a draw for the innovative and talented workforce they're looking for," she says in an interview.

In a follow-up email, she notes that Centennial Airport is home to companies "that have extensive experience in retrofitting aircraft for different missions." It's also worth noting that the state's two reconnaissance aircraft owned by the Division of Fire Prevention and Control are based there.

To the north, Jason Licon, director of the Fort Collins-Loveland Airport, notes the proximity of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and the University of Colorado-Boulder, which more than satisfies the state's requirement that the center be located near a "University or other Institution of Higher Education with relevant programs."

Moreover, Licon says, in the last seven years, more than 200,000 acres in the Fort Collins-Loveland area have been lost to wildland fires. "We have a lot of diverse geography around us from flat plains and the national parks to the west of us that creates a lot of potential as well in trying to find some solutions to aerial firefighting that this Center of Excellence will achieve," he says.

The only proposal from the Western Slope emphasizes an improved airport and the region's role in firefighting, says Kimberly Bullen, Rifle's assistant city manager and government affairs coordinator. She notes their terrain varies from valleys to peaks, and vegetation ranges from grass to spruce and pine. "It would be important to understand different fire behavior in testing new methods for fire suppression," she says.

Bullen notes the city has invested $47 million in the airport since 2010, and that another $12 million in improvements is expected in coming years. In addition, the county is offering 5,100 square feet of airport office space that's move-in ready.

"We also have a number of airports around us — Rangley, Meeker, Glenwood Springs, Aspen, Grand Junction — all within an hour flight time," she says. Bullen says several colleges in the region have firefighting programs, and Garfield County — which has had its share of wildland fires — hosts numerous federal and state firefighting assets, including helicopters, engines and crews.

Spokesmen for the other proposers didn't respond to the Independent's requests for interviews.

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