Colorado Springs to make a pitch to become wildfire research hub — The Colorado Springs Gazette

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

Colorado Springs is making a pitch to host a new state-funded center for fire research, a technology hub that could help propel Colorado to the forefront of revolutionizing how wildfires are fought.

The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance plans to submit a report this week detailing why El Paso County, twice victim of catastrophic wildfire, should be the new home for the fire research center.

While the public eye may have been trained on the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps created last year, a lesser-known aspect of the Centennial-based fleet – the Center for Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting – has been on the wish list for some Colorado Springs leaders for months.

The center, also created in 2014, is looking for a home, and state officials have asked Colorado’s cities to submit Requests for Information, or RFIs – non-binding proposals asking the state to consider a city in its decision making process.

If Colorado Springs is selected, the city could become an epicenter for cutting-edge firefighting technology, said Tony Kern, a former assistant director of fire aviation and management for the U.S. Forest Service who has helped with the business alliance’s proposal.

Kern believes that Colorado Springs is an ideal spot to become the state’s leader in tech-savvy firefighting.

“There really is no other place that even remotely has the capability or the experience” to support the research center, he said.

Submitting an RFI by Friday’s deadline will not determine the state’s decision, but it will serve as a guideline, said Melissa Lineberger, the center’s interim director. Money for the center comes from the state’s general fund – last year, the center received $274,252, and was expected to receive $777,437 for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Lineberger expects the new center to be up and running in August.

The state is looking for cities that are centrally located with access to airports but without much air traffic. State officials also want the center’s home city to be a “desirable place to live” with a nearby university, and have the backing of the local county and city government.

Colorado Springs has it all, Kern thinks, although the city may end up competing with Fort Collins-Loveland if the Larimer County cities submit a proposal.

The business alliance is working with the city of Colorado Springs on the plan, said Andy Merritt, the alliance’s Chief Defense Industry Officer. Kim Melchor, a spokeswoman for the city, was not aware of the city’s involvement in the pitch; officials with city’s office of emergency management could not be reached on Wednesday.

El Paso County’s mix of mountains, forests and wildland urban interfaces represent the rest of the state, making it ideal for aircraft testing, Kern said.

Colorado Springs also has access to military bases and their aircraft, which can be used to bolster a firefight from the air. Kern also believes that Colorado Springs has only airport aside from Denver International Airport that can handle oversized air tankers.

Lastly, the county’s recent wildfire history has made it a place for research, Kern said.

In June 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire ignited west of Colorado Springs, destroying 347 homes and killing two people. In early June 2013, the Black Forest fire started in northeastern El Paso County, and rapidly surpassed Waldo in its destruction – claiming 488 homes and two lives, the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

The fires caught the attention of researchers and firefighters from around the world, and continue to be the focus of study.

The center will be plugged into two PC-12s planes equipped with remote sensing thermal technology. The planes are rarely used to fight fire, but can spot remote fires long before crews can reach them. The planes have the ability to fly at night, something that the forest service prohibits when fighting wildfire, Kern said.

“That will revolutionize the firefighting industry,” said Kern, who spent five years as the head of aerial fighting for the Forest Service in the early 2000s. “If we could get air tankers on or dropping water or retardant on fires at night, that would be a huge breakthrough.”

While with the Forest Service, Kern oversaw the grounding of a massive fleet of more than 44 air tankers, most of which were deemed too old to fly. The Forest Service has yet to recoup its loses, and has since struggled to create a fleet of so-called next-generation air tankers to help cover a spate of wildfires from Colorado to Washington state.

While the Forest Service struggles to resolve its own issues with wildfire response, Kern hopes that Colorado’s firefighting fleet will be at the forefront when it comes to changing firefighting and possibly serve as a leader for the federal government. If Colorado Springs gets the research center, Kern believes that between 500 and 1,000 jobs could be added in coming years.”The first big hurdle is where it is going to be,” said Kern of the center.

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