Contract squabble over, tankers can fight fires

Published: June 7, 2013, 6:30 pm

by jakob rodgers jakob.rodgers@gazette.com —

Expect fire commanders to worry less about contract fights and more about fighting wildfires.

A Montana-based company withdrew its contract protest Thursday over the nation’s newest fleet of aerial firefighting tankers, clearing the way for the U.S. Forest Service to nearly double its large tanker fleet this summer.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., hailed the move by Neptune Aviation Services Inc., calling it a “clear victory for the people of Colorado.”

The decision ended fears of another understaffed firefighting season, when a similar contract protest forced the nation to fight through its third-worst fire season in decades with a dwindling fleet of Korean-war era planes.

It also allowed the Forest Service to move forward with plans to possibly more-than quadruple its new fleet within 10 years.

The agency had eight planes on contract entering the season, three less than last year. With Neptune’s decision, the agency can field an additional seven planes, each faster and capable of carrying at least 3,000 gallons of retardant.

The agency initially planned to field those seven new planes in 2012. But officials shelved those plans last year after two companies protested the Forest Service’s contracts.

The “next generation” contracts run five years, though each carries options for an additional five years.

Last year’s protest appeared to work; the Forest Service awarded those two companies contracts this year, after asking companies to re-submit bids.

Meanwhile, Neptune was left off this year’s list despite originally winning a contract in 2012.

Ron Hooper, chief executive officer of Neptune, declined to offer a reason for ending the company’s protest – noting only that his company faces “significant business implications” without a “next generation” contract.

Even with the contracts cleared, two months could pass before most of those new planes fly.

Each tanker company has 60 days after finalizing their contracts to complete a plethora of certification tests – each required before fighting a fire.

The certifications include dumping water of a field filled with cups to demonstrate each plane’s ability to effectively drop slurry, said Mike Ferris, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

One tanker – a DC-10 capable of carrying up to 11,600 gallons of retardant – has already passed those tests. It began flying sorties out of Phoenix this week, Ferris said. Ferris was unsure how long it would take the other tankers to become certified.

The tankers enter a fire season that’s proven far less menacing than in 2012.

As of Friday, 18,582 fires had been reported this year across the United States, burning 352,896 acres, Ferris said.

The nation’s 10-year average through Friday is 31,554 fires and 1,387,956 acres burned, he said.