County strikes deal for fire helicopters

Officials can call for exclusive use when needed

Members of the Castle Rock Fire Department train with Rampart Helicopter Services July 6, 2012 at Douglas County High School. Douglas County entered an exclusive contract with the helicopter service this past week for the first time, securing Rampart's assistance for any potential wildland fires prior to May 1 in the county. File photo
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It was 2010 when Douglas County first signed an agreement with Castle Rock-based Rampart Helicopter Services, using the company on an as-needed, on-call basis to provide aid in wildland firefighting.

On April 9, the county commissioners unanimously approved a new contract that allows the county to shift from a call-when-needed basis to an exclusive-use situation for a minimum of 30 days whenever it sees fit.

“Up until today, if the helicopter were in Castle Rock and were available we could call them and use them specifically for wildland firefighting,” said Tim Johnson, Douglas County director of emergency management. “The problem with that contract, though, was that they were not obligated to stay if they had other work and other obligations.

“These guys have contracts all over the western United States on a call-when-needed basis, so they could literally be in Montana doing work for the forest service or a utility company under contract, and a fire could break out in Douglas County and they would be unavailable to us.”

By placing Rampart under exclusive use, it gives Douglas County the upper hand, and the service is guaranteed to be on stand-by and ready to go when needed.

County Manager Douglas DeBord used his authority to sign an agreement with Rampart April 1, placing them under exclusive use through May 1, at which point federal resources are available. Those resources remain available through Oct. 1.

The problem with relying on federal resources, Johnson explained, is that they are extremely limited, and Colorado is just one of the states that receive money allocated for the Rocky Mountain Region.

“If our fires are not high enough on the priority list some of those resources may not be available to us,” he said.

Last year, for instance, with federal money coming into the state already to assist with Waldo Canyon and High Park, a Douglas fire the equivalent of the 2011 Burning Tree blaze might not have even drawn assistance from the feds. And if Rampart was somewhere else under contract, the county may have been left without aerial support.

“It’s kind of like an insurance policy,” Johnson said. “With the increased fire danger and increase in intense fires that we’ve seen the last few years, we looked at this and said, ‘We really need to have something to help us through the periods when we know our federal partners are not available.’ We want to be able to immediately react.”

As a bipartisan bill works its way through the state Senate to provide Colorado with its own aerial fleet, Johnson says he is excited about the possibility, but that Douglas County needs to be proactive to make sure it is covered regardless of what happens with the Legislature.

“We’ve needed more resources here in Colorado for a long time,” he said. “I think this bill is a good step forward. The fact it is being talked about is a very positive thing.”