By Keith Coffman
DENVER, March 28 (Reuters) - Colorado needs to strengthen efforts to combat wildfires to prevent future destructive blazes but need not create its own state-run aerial fleet of water-dropping planes, a firefighting agency recommended on Friday.
The report by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control was issued ahead of the start of the annual fire season at the request of lawmakers following a series of devastating wildfires that hit the state in recent years.
The agency's director, Paul Cooke, said in a statement that firefighting efforts should focus on early detection and suppression before blazes rage out of control.
"As simplistic as it sounds, our goal is to keep wildfires that threaten people and property small," he said.
A series of wildfires burned almost 250,000 acres and killed six people in Colorado in 2012, making it the state's worst wildfire season on record. Last year, the state's single most destructive wildfire destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.
Cooke said a bill pending in the state legislature that would create a state-run aerial firefighting fleet, similar to one in California, is too expensive.
"The large capital investment cost of procuring, revitalizing and modifying air tankers does not present a best-value approach to meet Colorado's wildfire management goals," he said.
Instead, Cooke recommended the state spend $33.6 million next fiscal year to contract for air tankers on an as-needed basis, purchase smaller aircraft to detect wildfires and implement an improved communications system for responding agencies.
The sponsor of the aerial firefighting bill, state Senator Steve King, a Republican from western Colorado, said although the report stopped short of saying the state should buy a full-blown fleet, he was pleased with its general tone.
"I'm very optimistic we will be able to strengthen Colorado's ability to battle wildfires with aerial resources," King said, adding that his goal was to protect the state's watershed from the effects of wildfires.
Whether King's bill will be amended to incorporate the agency's findings is unclear.
The Democratic president of the state senate, Morgan Carroll, who co-sponsored the bill, said she will digest the report before "implementing policy that improves fire safety in Colorado." (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Grebler)
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