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Black Hawk to Firehawk: Work continues on Colorado's new firefighting helicopter

United Rotorcraft expects to have the helicopter ready for Colorado's Department of Public Safety by the end of the year.

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — With seemingly more frequent and more intense fires, first responders need all the help they can get.

Centennial-based United Rotorcraft is converting Black Hawk helicopters into firefighting helicopters to provide more resources in the air, helping buy time for firefighters on the ground. 

They're now working on one for Colorado.

"We're obviously excited to produce the Firehawk for many agencies, but to be able to do it for the state of Colorado really kind of brings it home to all of us and all the employees," the company's aerial firefighting program manager, Eric Lama, said.

Lama and his team are hoping these types of helicopters can make a difference in wildland fire response in the state.

Credit: Alex Castillo
The Black Hawk helicopter sits in front of a banner showing what it will look like.

From Black Hawk to Firehawk

Lama said the aircraft came from out of state and into their possession sometime between April and May. 

It currently sits gutted at their hangar in Centennial, where crews are working on it. 

"And currently we are in the installation phase. We'll work the tank and the high landing gear over the next few weeks," he said.

The expected delivery date of the helicopter is by the end of the year. The aircraft will go to Colorado's Department of Public Safety, specifically the Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

The copter is being converted to act as a multi-mission aircraft.

"Obviously its main mission will be firefighting, but at the same time, it'll have a rescue hoist installed. So they'll be able to rescue people with the hoist or they'll be able to insert firefighters in areas that they can't land," Lama said. "It will actually have a searchlight on the nose to help with spotting people that need help or anything along those lines. There's a multitude of different systems that come in the aircraft, but it truly is a multi-mission airframe."

Along with it will be a water tank that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water, and it can transport 12 firefighters with all their equipment, Lama said.

"Really to get to those small, small fires and get them put out before they make it into the news or the newspaper and they become multibillion-dollar, multi-acre issues," he said.

Credit: Alex Castillo
Eric Lama, Aerial Firefighting Program Manager for United Rotorcraft, stands in front of the state's future wildland firefighting aircraft.

Making a difference from the air

Several air tankers and helicopters were used to quickly contain the Snow Creek Fire that burned near homes in the Morrison area last month.

One of those helicopters belonged to Douglas County.

"It's the only helicopter exclusively at our disposal," said Mike Alexander, the Deputy Director of Emergency Management for the county. 

The helicopter they use comes from a Loveland-based helicopter contractor, and they have the helicopter on a 153-day contract.

RELATED: Douglas County gets exclusive use of firefighting helicopter

That's a longer period than normal, Alexander said, partly because of the frequency of fires they've seen.

"But we still see a lot of small fires, and that's really where aviation assets come in the most benefit, is keeping those fires small," he said.

They've had to use the helicopter to respond to at least 10 wildfires since June 1 -- two of which were outside of Douglas County. 

"That's actually the greatest fire response frequency that we've had in the last four years since we've been doing exclusive-use contracting," Alexander said. 

Throwing resources at smaller fires can make all the difference, he said. 

"I think there is a heightened sense of the need to provide overwhelming force to these fires, particularly like in a Snow Creek incident where it's right next to homes and people and infrastructure," Alexander said. "And so what we know to be the reality is that the best chance we have for success in containing those fires as small as we can, as quickly as we can, while saving lives and reducing destruction of property, is that combination of air and ground together. It gives us the best chance for success."

RELATED: 'We are saving lives': Colorado facility converts Black Hawk helicopters into firefighting aircraft

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