When wildfires swept across Colorado and the western U.S. last summer and fall, water- and retardant-dropping airplanes and helicopters that can make the difference between a small blaze and a deadly megafire were difficult to come by.

States were suddenly pitted against each other as federal emergency managers worked to determine who needed the most help from the skies. And that resource choke-point is only expected to get worse as climate change stokes a longer fire season filled with more and larger blazes.

That’s why Colorado lawmakers have signed off on spending tens of millions of dollars this year to improve the state’s access to wildfire-fighting planes and helicopters by extending lease agreements. They also have agreed to purchase a state-of-the-art firefighting helicopter.

Colorado currently owns only two aircraft dedicated to firefighting. Both are single-engine Pilatus PC-12s and they can only track blazes, not put them out.

“By having our own (aircraft), whether it’s leased or purchased, we maintain that operational control and make sure there’s at least a certain amount of resources in Colorado,” said Vaughn Jones, wildland division section chief at the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

One proposal lawmakers have already approved would, if signed by Gov. Jared Polis, increase the state’s current contracts for two single-engine air tankers to 240 days up from 150 for a cost of about $620,000. The two helicopters it has on contract for fire season would be available to Colorado for 230 days up from 120 for a cost of $1.36 million.

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