Colorado deploys planes to spot, douse wildfires faster


ENGLEWOOD | Colorado will patrol its forests and grasslands with two new wildfire-spotting aircraft this summer, hoping to find and snuff out flames before they explode into the deadly mega-fires that have plagued the state in the past.

Infrared cameras aboard the planes are so sensitive that one of them detected a campfire with six people sitting around it from 28,000 feet in the air during a training flight, state fire management officer Joe LoBiondo said.

The planes were put on display Friday at their home base at Centennial Airport in the south Denver area. The single-engine Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, about the size of a business plane, can reach any part of the state in about 40 minutes, said Michael Woolley, operations manager for Bode Aviation, which has a contract to provide pilots and maintain the state-owned planes

The state bought and equipped the planes for $9 million, Colorado Fire Prevention and Control Director Paul Cooke said. “We’re optimistic, if we can prevent one mega-fire like High Park or Waldo Canyon, that the program has paid for itself,” he said.

The 2012 High Park fire killed one person, destroyed 259 houses and burned about 135 square miles near Fort Collins. The Waldo Canyon fire of the same year killed two people, destroyed 346 houses and burned about 29 square miles in the Colorado Springs area.

Colorado lawmakers initially proposed buying tanker aircraft to supplement the fleet that federal agencies use to drop water and fire-retardant slurry on fires, Cooke said. But state officials concluded that spotter aircraft would be a better investment, he said.

“We need to find these fires faster. We need to get resources on them faster,” Cooke said.

Aerial infrared cameras have long been employed to map wildfires during low-altitude night flights, but using them in the daytime to spot new fires from high altitude is new. Colorado officials say they’re the first to use the cameras that way, but the claim couldn’t immediately be independently verified.

The planes, called Multi-Mission Aircraft, would be launched whenever state officials suspect an increased risk of a new fire, such as after a lightning storm over a dry area, LoBiondo said.

The planes will be dispatched at no cost if local firefighters or law-enforcement officials request them, LoBiondo said. Federal agencies could request the planes, but for a fee, probably around $1,500 an hour, he said.

This will be their first season in use.

The planes will carry a pilot and a sensor operator and could stay aloft for up to six hours at a time, officials said. The infrared cameras are carried in a basketball-size sphere that can be lowered or retracted on the underside of the plane near the tail. An operator controls and monitors them on screens in the passenger cabin.

In addition to campfires, the infrared cameras can pick up heat from hot roofs, flares from natural gas wells and even car and truck engines, said LoBiondo, who is one of the state employees trained to operate the infrared sensors. The operator can zoom in on a heat source or the plane can fly closer to distinguish wildfires from other heat sources.

The planes were rolled out as Cooke released the annual outlook for the state wildfire season. The risk along the Front Range will be below average through mid-June because of a wet spring, but the danger could increase when the summer heat dries things out, he said.

Colorado west of the Continental Divide is drier and could be at higher risk, he said.