USA — Montana Senator Jon Tester is upset with the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to award contracts for “next generation” air tankers to companies which still don’t have their jets ready to fight fires.
The criticism came at a hearing in Washington Wednesday, when Tester grilled Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell during a budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
USFS officials announced earlier this month that they were awarding a contract for seven new tankers to several companies after starting over on the bidding process last year.
That decision left Missoula’s Neptune Aviation off the list, even though Neptune had initially won the first contract last year and is one of the few operators with jet tankers ready to go.
Neptune is appealing that decision.
Tester says the Forest Service left “better options on the table”, and not having all the tankers ready this year puts Montana communities at risk this fire season.
“I’ve seen what’s happened in Montana’s forests, and I can’t figure out why the award was made how it was,” Tester told USFS chief Tom Tidwell. “We haven’t gotten an answer when these planes are going to be up in the air. My problem is there are better options on the table to be taken up by the Forest Service and you didn’t do it.”
Tidwell said the new planes still need to be tested. Tester questioned whether the Forest Service fully considered whether the planes would be ready before issuing the contract, saying the agency could have saved money in the long-run by getting the tankers online sooner.