Drones in firefighting could save Colorado tax dollars and lives

Author: Joey Bunch - June 7, 2017 - Updated: February 19, 2018

Look, up in the sky! That’s what they could be saying in Chaffee County and the San Luis Valley as the state begins to study the use of drones to respond to wildfires.

Rep. Jim Wilson, who sponsored House Bill 1070, thinks stepping up the use of unmanned aircraft could save the state money by alleviating its reliance on regular planes in dangerous flying conditions — and lives by improving response times and strategies.

The study won’t cost taxpayers a dime, but rather allow the state to accept gifts, grants and donations for the pilot program on non-piloted aircraft. National Geographic reported last year that drones are being used in Nebraska to drop fireballs for controlled burns,  the system of destroying overgrown vegetation that can fuel wildfires.

“More and more money is being invested in drone technology, this bill studies how that new technology can help Colorado fight wildfires,” Wilson said in a statement. “Drones have tremendous potential to survey ground and relay data without the cost of manned aircraft and the risk of putting pilots in the sky.

“I am grateful for the strong bipartisan support and very excited to see the outcome of this study.”

The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose. The governor signed the bill this week to authorize the study by the Department of Public Safety’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology and Aerial Firefighting.

The center itself was created by the legislature three years ago to research, test and evaluate new and existing technologies that could help fight fires from above.

The results of the drone study will be presented to the Wildfire Matters Review Committee and the House and Senate judiciary committees by Sept. 1, 2018.

“This legislation will help Colorado maintain its leadership role in aerospace nationally and internationally, having the second largest concentration of aerospace industries in the country,” Wendell Pryor, director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corp., said in a statement. “The legislation, with widespread industry support and its specific focus on public safety, positions the state as a worldwide leader in aerial firefighting in a proactive way to utilize the technology.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.