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Colorado expanding use of helicopters to fight wildfires at night

The future of using fixed-wing airplanes to fight fires at night is stalled after a pilot was killed in the first attempt last year.

COLORADO, USA — Colorado will have a new tool to fight wildfires this year. The state is expanding its use of firefighting helicopters that are equipped with night-vision goggles. 

The goal is to be able to fly after the sun goes down, giving them an advantage to get hold of fires.

"For the last three years we’ve been in that training mode," said Vince Welbaum, Aviation Unit Chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Welbaum describes the training process as a "crawl, walk, run" scenario, meaning it takes a long time to train before the helicopters are ready to fight a real fire. 

He said the helicopters will only be used at night under special circumstances that are evaluated with each fire.

"Lives are or will be threatened, structures are or will be threatened, resources of significant economic values are or will be threatened," Welbaum said, speaking about the circumstances that would allow them to fly at night.

Pilots would be required to first fly over the fire during the day before they can put on night vision goggles and continue working into the night. 

> Watch: 9NEWS joined the pilots on a training exercise in 2019

In 2021, Colorado tried using fixed-wing aircraft for the first time to fight fires at night. The first flight ended in tragedy when the plane crashed into a mountain near Estes Park at night. The pilot was killed.

Welbaum said helicopters are different.

"Because of that accident, we’re pretty much stalled out on the fixed-winged side of things and looking at that anytime soon," Welbaum said. "With a helicopter you can hold and hover. So you can stop. With a fixed-wing, you can’t stop."

Colorado will contract with two helicopters this year that have night vision capabilities. The state is expecting to receive its own firefighting helicopter toward the end of the year. That retrofitted Black Hawk helicopter was purchased last summer.

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