The bids are in the mail for the next Next-Generation round of large firefighting aircraft, including a new proposal from Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.

“We have offered up some BAe-146s for what they’re calling Next-Gen 2.0,” Neptune chief executive officer Ron Hooper said Thursday. “There aren’t a lot of different specifications, but with the 2.0, before the Forest Service makes an award, they will come out and look at the airplane. They won’t accept paper airplanes any longer.”

“Paper airplanes” have been a challenge for Neptune since the U.S. Forest Service’s original Next-Gen contracts were released in 2013, and the company was outbid by several competitors. However, two of the five winning vendors, Aero Air LLC and Aero Flite Inc., failed to deliver a qualified air tanker until 2014. And a third, Minden Air Corp. both failed to deliver a modern tanker and had an accident with its last operational P2-V tanker.

“The winning vendors are expected to start at the first day of the mandatory availability period,” Forest Service fire and aviation spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said Thursday. “We added that clause to prevent delays bringing aircraft into service. The previous contract gave vendors 60 to 90 days to bring tankers into compliance, and most of the vendors weren’t able to meet that. Our goal is to bring these Next-Gen tankers into service this fire season.”

Neptune was able to land legacy contracts for its six P2-V aircraft and one of its new BAe jets. Hooper said the company expected to have at least six BAes ready for flying by June.

The new contracts call for fire bombers that can carry at least 3,000 gallons of retardant and cruise at 300 knots when fully loaded. However, Jones said the Forest Service was also preparing a “call-when-needed” short-term contract for this summer that might be used if the five-year Next-Gen contract decisions get delayed. The shorter contracts would also have smaller payload requirements, meaning P2-Vs with 2,000-gallon tanks would be acceptable.

The full contracts are expected to be released around the start of May, Hooper said. The Missoula company already has three of its P2-Vs stationed in California, New Mexico and Billings for early-season fires.

“When you look at the forecasts for significant fire potential, you see a lot of above-average on the map,” Jones said. “A lot depends on what happens in the next couple of months with ignitions. But it’s looking like a lot of potential to have a busy summer.”

Montana’s border area between Idaho and the Continental Divide is in a zone shifting from normal potential to above-normal potential during June and July. Much of California and Arizona are in the above-normal zone for this summer.

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