Red-flag weather warnings are already up for parts of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kansas this spring, but firefighters still don’t know how many large air tankers might be available for retardant drops.
In Missoula, Neptune Aviation rolled out its five new BAe-146 jet tankers Tuesday for a photo shoot. But it only has a definite U.S. Forest Service contract for one of those, and hasn’t heard how a protest might be resolved regarding the others.
“We’re waiting for the agency to take action,” Neptune CEO Ron Hooper said of the protest deliberations. “We are assuming the contracts are still in place because they have not been rescinded or canceled. But we are under a suspend-work order.”
The Forest Service has struggled to bring a fleet of next-generation air tankers into service since it first awarded a slate of contracts for seven new planes in 2012. Neptune received two of those contracts, but a pair of unsuccessful bidders challenged the decision. The Forest Service gave Neptune’s two contracts to the challengers, and the Missoula company protested that move in turn.
Last December, Neptune announced it had received no-bid contracts for two of its jets worth a potential $141.7 million after Forest Service officials concluded many next-gen planes would not be delivered on time. But a Government Accountability Office investigation questioned that decision after finding Neptune may have misstated its costs and its potential for going out of business without the contracts. The GAO recommended the contracts be revoked, but the Forest Service has not acted on that call.
Meanwhile, the remaining five contracts have not produced planes in 2014. Nevada-based Minden Air Corp. missed an April 25 deadline to put its new BAe-146 in service, according to National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. The Forest Service has issued a “cure notice” to Minden asking for a detailed plan when the plane will be fully certified and available to fly wildfire missions.
Another four tankers aren’t scheduled to fly missions before June. But those planes haven’t met their flying requirements yet either, Jones said. 10 Tanker Air Carrier has one DC-10 very large air tanker and Coulson Group has a C-130Q large air tanker ready for retardant drops.
Aside from the next-gen jets, Neptune has contracts for six of its aging P2-V propeller-powered bombers, and Minden will provide a seventh P2-V. The Forest Service can also call upon eight Air National Guard C-130 planes equipped with removable retardant tanks. And it can request help from Alaska and Canada for up to eight older CV 580 propeller tankers, if those firefighters aren’t needed close to home.
However the dispute plays out, Montanans may not see much of an airshow this summer. The significant wildfire potential map for July and August shades all of Montana and much of Idaho in the “below normal” outlook zone, while western Oregon and northern and coastal California fall in the “above normal” zone. Most of southern Alaska is in the “above normal” range for May and June, but expects to see risk decline in July and August.
No large air tankers were in action anywhere in the country as of Tuesday, according to NIFC spokeswoman Christine Schuldheisz.
“We have zero unfilled air-support requests,” Schuldheisz said. “The fuel types are not ready to burn.”