Udall tells Forest Service to override air tanker protest

CHEYENNE, WYO. — 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.

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Missoula, Mont.-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 and one in Colorado Springs destroyed nearly 700 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. (Go to the original Coloradoan article!)