USA — CHEYENNE, Wyoming The U.S. Forest Service will award long-delayed contracts to add several large, jet-powered air tankers to the nation’s fleet of firefighting planes in about two months, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Friday.
The next generation air tankers are required to be able to cruise at more than 340 mph while fully loaded with no less than 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.
The planes are sorely needed the fleet has dwindled to 11 from 44 a decade ago.
Contracts for the air tankers were on track to be awarded last year. The Forest Service announced in June that it was contracting four companies to fly seven of the new planes to fight fires. President Barack Obama budgeted $24 million for that purpose.
Last year’s announcement came as an already fierce wildfire season was just getting started. Before the month was out, the Waldo Canyon Fire had roared into Colorado Springs, killing two people and destroying more than 340 homes.
Then in October, protests filed by companies that didn’t win air tanker contracts Canada-based Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker of Victorville, California prompted the Forest Service to reopen the bidding process for the next generation planes.
Tidwell said contracts now are on track to be awarded about 60 days from now.
“One way or another, we’ll have an adequate large air tanker response this year,” he said.
As many as seven next generation large air tankers could be contracted, according to the Forest Service.
The air tankers contracted by the Forest Service don’t attempt to put out wildfires. Rather, they drop fire retardant around the perimeters of fires to slow their spread.
That buys time for firefighters to move in on the ground and for other types of aircraft to drop water on the flames.
Nine of the Forest Service’s 11 planes are Korean War-vintage P2Vs operated by Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.
Neptune also has been under contract to operate two BAe-146 jets, which meet the next generation requirements. Neptune was among the companies that were to receive the next-generation contracts.
The other three were Minden Air Corp., of Minden, Nevada; Aero Air, LLC, of Hillsboro, Oregon; and Aero Flite, Inc., of Kingman, Arizona
The Forest Service responded to the protests by making a number of fairly technical changes to the contract terms for the latest bidding process, said Bill Gabbert, a former firefighter and wildfire expert who blogs about the air tanker industry on his Wildfire Today website.
Large air tankers such as those the Forest Service seeks to add to its fleet play an important role in preventing small wildfires from turning into big ones, Gabbert pointed out.
“They should have been available by mid-summer of 2012,” Gabbert said Friday. “It’s been a real mess.”
The possibility of still more contract protests that could keep needed air tankers from fighting wildfires alarms Colorado Sen. Mark Udall.
“If contractors continue to challenge agency decisions, I will urge the Forest Service to use its emergency authorities to override the challenges and finalize the tanker contracts as soon as possible. Colorado cannot wait,” Udall said in a statement this week.
Tidwell said the Forest Service has that option, but also can call upon up as many as eight additional planes if needed. Those are CV-580s operated by the state of Alaska and the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre.
The Forest Service also has access to eight military C130 cargo planes specially fitted to drop fire retardant from a device called the Modular Airborne Firefighting System. The C130s are operated by Air National Guard and Reserve units in Wyoming, North Carolina, Colorado and California.
Dozens of water-dropping helicopters and smaller, single-engine air tankers also are on contract with the Forest Service to fight fires.
A dry winter already portends another harsh season for wildfires in the Rocky Mountains. Southern Montana and nearly all of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico remain locked in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The Forest Service tries to allocate firefighting equipment where it’s likely to be needed most, Tidwell said.
“This time of year, we’re looking at where we can expect early fire season to be, where it will move across the country,” he said. “Then, as it moves across the season, to have those resources on board.”