CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado called on the U.S. Forest Service on Friday to make certain that a contract dispute doesn't ground large air tankers used to fight wildfires as warmer, drier weather boosts the risk of destructive blazes.
The move came after Neptune Aviation formally protested national firefighting contracts awarded May 6 by the Forest Service.
Missoula, Montana-based Neptune was passed over for one of the contracts allowing as many as seven large, next-generation tankers to be operated by five other companies to fight blazes. The latest planes are faster and carry more fire retardant than the tankers previously contracted for use.
The Forest Service unfairly discriminated against Neptune, which needs the contract to help it remain viable, Chief Operating Officer Dan Snyder said.
"When we don't have a 10-year contract, we really have to start questioning our planning, our financial investment," Snyder said. "It has major implications to us from a longevity standpoint."
The dispute could put the contracts in limbo because the contracts won't take effect until the protest is resolved or the U.S. Government Accountability Office grants emergency authority allowing the agreements to take effect.
"Lives and homes are at stake, and I refuse to stand idly by as red tape suffocates any chance of the U.S. Forest Service" finally acquiring use of the air tankers, Udall said in a release.
Forest Service spokespeople Larry Chambers in Washington, D.C., and Jennifer Jones at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Few wildfires have broken out in the Rocky Mountain region so far this year, but a blaze near Fort Collins, Colorado, and one in Colorado Springs, Colorado, destroyed hundreds of homes last summer.
"Wildfire season is coming, and I refuse to force Colorado communities to watch as preventable and containable wildfires are allowed to threaten lives and homes simply because of contractors' squabbles," Udall said.
The Forest Service has awarded next-generation air tanker contracts twice in the past year. The contracts have been protested both times.
Last year, Neptune got a contract to fly at least two of its jet-powered, BAe-146 planes for the Forest Service. At least one company, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, protested that round of contracts, prompting the Forest Service to restart the process.
This time, 10 Tanker was among the companies that got contracts. Based in Victorville, Calif, it is in the process of moving to Casper. It has two, DC-10 passenger planes that it converted to drop what it says is more than three times as much retardant as the other contracted planes.
Even though Neptune didn't get a contract this time, the Forest Service will still call on its planes to fight fires. In March, the agency awarded the company a five-year, "legacy" air tanker contract to fly one BAe-146 jet plane and six of its propeller-driven P2V planes.
Another BAe-146 can fly under short-term Forest Service contracts, Snyder said.
The P2Vs are Korean War-vintage planes often criticized for their age.
Udall called the company's protest shortsighted and said it could leave the Forest Service with mostly aging aircraft to fight modern mega-fires.
Snyder suggested it was shortsighted to not grant a next-generation contract to Neptune.
"I understand the desire not to have a protested contract, and have those airplanes out there. But then, that's just looking at one year. What happens in five years when our seven or eight airplanes are no longer available?" he said.
Besides 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the other four companies that got next-generation air tanker contracts were Minden Air Corp. of Minden, Nevada, for one BAe-146; Aero Air LLC of Hillsboro, Oregon, for two MD87s; Aero Flite Inc. of Kingman, Arizona, for two Avro RJ85s; and Coulson Aircrane (USA) Inc. of Portland, Oregon, for one C130Q.