The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance is heading a coalition that seeks to bring a potentially revolutionary firefighting program to the city.
The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is expected to formulate strategies and technology for battling wildland fires at night — a practice nearly unheard of today — as well as to find more sophisticated ways to fight fires in the wildland-urban interface.
"There's no community in Colorado that has a greater motivation in seeing advancements in aerial firefighting than Colorado Springs," says Tony Kern, former national aviation director for the U.S. Forest Service and a former Air Force officer who lives in the region.
Kern is part of the coalition putting together a bid for the center, which was authorized last year in Senate Bill 14-164 and signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The bill, which created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, carried a budget allocation of $19 million to purchase and lease aircraft and to establish the center, at a cost of $700,000 its first year. Next year's Air Corps budget will be about $9 million.
The center, to be opened before the end of this year, will bring at least eight jobs. But more importantly, it could spark interest from companies working to develop technology for innovative wildland firefighting, Kern says, and prompt them to set up offices here.
"We have had the two largest wildland-urban interface fires in America in the last three to four years," Kern says, referring to the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. "We have the experience and the background. We are motivated and experienced in that whole area."
In addition, Kern points out, the region offers a central location on the heavily populated Front Range; proximity to military assets that could become part of the research effort, including Fort Carson's helicopter unit and the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base; and an airport with low rates of weather-related closure and few traffic delays for take-off, due largely to its low number of commercial flights.
Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, calls the state's Firefighting Air Corps "a game-changer."
Already, the Air Corps has acquired two $4.5-million single-engine fixed-wing aircraft equipped with the latest sensing technology. Based in Centennial, the aircraft can be anywhere in the state within 45 minutes during fire season to provide intelligence on lightning strikes and to guide commanders on the ground, Cooke says in an interview.
"At 28,000 feet," he says, "we can identify a campfire and people walking around that campfire."
The research center, he says, represents an unprecedented effort by a state to develop new technologies for firefighting. While several jurisdictions in California fight fires at night in special circumstances, he says no state is conducting research to develop new tools to assure effective and safe night operations.
Night firefighting is "taboo" in the federal fire community, Cooke says, due to dangers of hitting electrical wires or other obstacles and the inability to direct ground operations effectively.
"I argue in Colorado we have the perfect situation, where the relative humidity increases so dramatically between the day and night," he says. "Fire will lay down [at night]. If we can get out there with our sensor equipment, we can pinpoint latitude and longitude, exact locations of hotspots, and with trained helicopter pilots, they can do [water] drops."
This, Cooke notes, could lead to suppression before fires get a good start.
"Traditionally, you get a report of a smoke scare, and you send ground firefighters looking for it who may or may not find anything," he says. "They stop for the night because it got dark. Kind of the Waldo Canyon scenario. You come out the next morning and by then, you get a wind event and it's an out-of-control fire."
Says Kern, "Everybody would love to fight fire at night from the sky. We should target fire with lasers and GPS. None of that is possible without advanced technology. I believe Colorado would revolutionize the entire global firefighting effort."
Cooke says the Firefighting Air Corps also is interested in identifying resources to assign to small fires within an hour of ignition, and expressed interest in Colorado Springs' investigation of reestablishing its police aviation program. Cooke says the state would entertain a proposal to contract for the aircraft when needed.
"We're encouraging jurisdictions who can do that to take a look at that, because the state isn't going to be able to address all the needs," he says.
That's music to the ears of Police Lt. Daniel Lofgren, who's researching the police air unit's reboot and sees the center as an opportunity to partner with the state and other participants.
Councilman Andy Pico says the Center of Excellence and the city's police program could find ways to share, such as maintenance of aircraft. "You could have some mutual benefit," he says. "It would be cool."
Cooke says a Springs coalition has been active in planning the center since the bill was introduced last year and brings a component that's unique. "Who else has more expertise in night operations than the U.S. military?" he says. "We could translate that to the firefighting world."
Communities bidding on the center must be willing to provide office space, computer equipment and other essentials, and Kern notes there's room for the 5,000-square-foot center at the Springs Airport. Location and ownership of those components, how much they would cost, and who would fund them are expected to be laid out in the region's proposal.
Andy Merritt, who heads military and defense programs with the Regional Business Alliance and is spearheading the application effort, didn't respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
The deadline for applying is Feb. 6. Cooke says he and Stan Hilkey, director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, expect to choose a site by late February. Other areas that have expressed interest, he says, are Rifle and Fort Collins.