GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A federal auditing agency on Wednesday upheld a challenge to a U.S. Forest Service contract for two next-generation air tankers to fight wildfires.
But it was not yet clear what impact the decision might have on the federal air tanker fleet this summer.
Three competing air tanker companies objected to a sole-source contract the Forest Service awarded to Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula. It calls for paying up to $496 million over nine years for exclusive use of two BAE-146 aircraft.
The Government Accountability Office said the Forest Service should either bolster its justification for considering just one company or redo the bidding. The Forest Service awarded the contract to Neptune as part of a settlement agreement in return for Neptune dropping another bid protest, GAO said.
Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the agency is evaluating that choice.
She said the agency still has 10 large air tankers ready for fire season, including two of the next-generation type that fly faster with bigger payloads of fire retardant. Officials hope to get five more next-generation air tankers under contract by the summer.
There are also eight military C-130s equipped for firefighting, eight planes available from the state of Alaska and Canada, and a DC-10 available to call when needed.
"The U.S. Forest Service is committed to ensuring that we have all of the resources we need to fight wildland fire and protect the lives and property of the American people," the agency said in a statement. "Air tankers are an important part of our efforts and we are currently reviewing the GAO recommendation."
Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune, said he had not heard from the Forest Service about what it intends to do but felt the contract was awarded properly. They have two more next-generation planes ready to go.
"Our interest is getting aircraft in the air being utilized to protect the national forests and private property," he said. "It's just been frustrating we haven't been able to do that."
One of the protesters was Coulson Aviation USA in Port Alberni, B.C., which uses C130s. CEO Wayne Colson said deciding to leave the contract with Neptune could result in another protest.
The Forest Service has been working since 2011 to modernize the aging fleet of large air tankers that drop fire retardant on wildfires around the West. Several of the old planes have crashed.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of air tankers remains controversial. The Forest Service has never done the scientific research to definitively demonstrate it works. It is commonly used to slow down the advance of a fire at a ridgeline, where ground crews can attack it.
The next-generation planes carry more than 3,000 gallons of retardant and fly faster than 350 mph. The old fleet of Korean War-era submarine chasers, known as P2Vs, fly about 165 mph and hold about 2,000 gallons.