Rifle lands aerial firefighting center

A fixed wing aircraft drops a load of fire retardant during the High Park Fire
Official U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jecca Geffre |

The Rifle-Garfield County Airport has been selected as the site for a major aerial firefighting research center, the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control recently announced.

Seen as a needed economic boost as the natural gas industry contracts in the region, the new Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is envisioned as a way to put Colorado at the cutting edge of fighting wildfires. It was created as part of Senate Bill 14-164, which also authorized the State Fire Division to purchase or contract for aerial firefighting assets.

“The Center of Excellence will research, test and evaluate existing and new technologies that support sustainable, effective and efficient aerial firefighting techniques,” said State Fire Director Paul Cooke.

Several other locations hoped to host the center, including Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Montrose and Jefferson County, but when the final recommendations were presented to Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rifle came out on top.

​“We were fortunate to have a number of outstanding candidates to consider for the Center of Excellence, and it was a difficult decision with both urban and rural applicants, but Rifle and Garfield County stood out as the best choice,” Hickenlooper said.

In a press release, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control cited several reasons for the decision, including proximity to open lands and high-risk wildfire areas, low costs including free office space, local understanding of the need for firefighting operations and proximity to other firefighting resources in Mesa and Eagle counties.

“Rifle/Garfield County also touted the willingness of its higher education institutions, government partners and business organizations to embrace the activities of the Center of Excellence and build on their existing expertise in workforce training, curriculum development, firefighting experience and related mutual interests to support the success of the Center of Excellence,” the release read. “Further, this jurisdiction has garnered regionwide support for hosting the center, with support from more than 21 different public and private entities throughout Colorado.”

Colorado Mountain College, which offers a Fire Science Technology degree in Edwards, joined Colorado Northwestern Community College and Western Colorado Community College in supporting the location.

“We’re very excited for the west Garfield community,” said Rachel Pokrandt, dean of CMC’s Rifle campus. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for our students to be engaged with the research that is going on.”

Colorado River Fire Chief Mike Morgan was similarly enthusiastic.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of an opportunity to be a part of positive change,” he said. “It’s time to look at some new tech, from airplanes to boots on the ground.”

Morgan noted that the airport is already home to an interagency fire station housing local, state and federal resources – just one of the ways the area is already a model for interagency collaboration.

“It’s near and dear,” he said. “Many of us were there when 14 firefighters gave their lives in South Canyon,” referring to the 1994 wildfire just west of Glenwood Springs on Storm King Mountain.

The potential economic benefits are significant, said state Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale.

“I am so proud of the Rifle team who worked to make this happen,” he said in a statement. “This modest project has the potential to grow with interest sparked by innovative companies working to develop firefighting technology, which is exactly the shot in the arm that the community of Rifle needs to get the economy moving again.”

That might just be the beginning. According to Cooke, “the location could easily become the Western Slope hub for DFPC programs.”

Previous media reports said the center was expected to be up and running by August and was to receive $777,437 in state money for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

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