Colorado to use night-vision helicopters to fight wildfires

LONGMONT, Colo. (KDVR) — With a busy fire season already underway, Colorado firefighters are preparing to add another item to their toolbox: night-vision-equipped helicopters.

Vince Welbaum is the state’s Aviation Unit chief and confirmed those details on Tuesday. Welbaum said two state-owned helicopters are now equipped with night-vision goggles — a technology known as NVG — and the state’s new FireHawk helicopter arriving later this year will be equipped as well. 

“We’ve been training to fly at night with our one helicopter for the last three years, and now we both have them set up with NVG,” Welbaum said. “We’re hoping we can move forward with that on the helicopter side this year.”

It comes less than a year after an air tanker pilot was killed fighting a wildfire at night outside of Estes Park. That company, CO Fire Aviation, was on a first-of-its-kind mission fighting fires at night in Colorado with a fixed-wing aircraft.

Those operations have since been halted statewide.

“We’re not going down that path, with the fixed-wing, just yet,” Welbuam said.

Welbaum said helicopters offer more control, but he stressed they will only be used when conditions are right for safety.

“If it’s just out there on a forest that’s just going to burn trees, there’s no need to add that additional risk for flying at night,” he said.

The Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control said night operations will only take place in certain situations where homes are threatened or if people are in danger.

Officials say they used night-vision firefighting with a helicopter on one fire in 2021 and had success.

“It’s really kind of a unique situation for night flying,” Welbaum said. “It’s got to be the right conditions.”

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