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Paradise fire air tanker

A Neptune Aviation BAe-146 air tanker dumps a load of retardant on the perimeter of the Camp fire near Paradise, California, in November. Missoula-based Neptune expects to compete for five new Forest Service airtanker contracts this winter.

The U.S. Forest Service wants five more large air tankers ready for firefighting next year, but a new contract solicitation released on Monday leaves problems for the companies that provide them.

“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”

The five “Next Generation 3.0” contracts would give the Forest Service 18 large air tankers like Neptune’s BAe-146 jets on exclusive use status for fast response to forest fires.

That leaves at least seven more planes on call-when-needed contracts, which Hooper said cost the government more money in bad fire seasons and provide less initial-attack capability because the planes and crews may not be available when fires break out.

Neptune happened to have five of its jets back in Missoula to start their winter maintenance when California’s Camp fire exploded. The Forest Service called for three planes on Nov. 8, which Neptune was able to provide within six hours.

“They’re not going to be that lucky all the time,” Hooper said. “My pilots won’t sit around a lot on call-when-needed contracts when they can make better money doing something else.”

Neptune has nine BAe jets fitted with retardant tanks for firefighting. It retired its original fleet of Korean War-era P2-V propeller planes in 2017. Under the Forest Service’s new contracting system, it has four jets on exclusive-use contracts with at least two years remaining. Hooper said he needed at least one of the new 3.0 exclusive-use contracts and preferably two to operate effectively.

The Forest Service was expected to release the 3.0 contracts in February 2017. They were delayed after an initial version drew criticism from providers of very large air tankers such as the DC-10 jumbo jet that flew several fires in Montana last year. The new contracts allow both large and very large air tankers to compete for bids. Responses are due by Jan. 17, 2019.

Although 2018 was considered a below-average year for wildfire activity, it still lasted much longer than typical.

“The fire season used to be June through September and that was it,” Hooper said. “Now we plan on having planes available in February and having them out until November. That’s the reality now.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.