Forest Service close to awarding new airtanker contracts

Vilsack says latest contracts could also face protests, despite efforts to minimize potential issues

Feds mobilizing air resources for wildfire season. PHOTO COURTESY KARI GREER/USFS.
Federal contracts for airtankers have still not been finalized for the 2013 wildfire season. Photo courtesy Kari Greer/USFS.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Last week’s Galena Fire near Fort Collins was a stark reminder that firefighters need to be ready for the upcoming season, which could be long and hot in of the country.

Wrangling over air tanker contracts has already delayed Forest Service efforts to bring new planes online, but U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack this week said he’s done everything possible to make sure that up to seven “next-generation” large air tankers will be available for the 2013 fire season.

Aerial resources can be crucial in some situations, helping to prevent fires from growing out of control. Drops of fire retardant can also help protect valuable structures and give ground-based firefighters more room to maneuver.

Vilsack’s March 22 letter to Sen. Mark Udall explained that his department is expecting issue contract awards soon, but that there’s still a possibility those contracts could be contested by unsuccessful bidders under standard federal contracting procedures.

“My staff has been engaged with Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management program managers, Acquisition Management, and USDA’s office of the General Counsel to understand the contract issues and provide support to facilitate the award of these seven next generation large airtanker contracts so that they will be available for the 2013 fire season,” Vilsack wrote.

Vilsack was responding to a letter Udall wrote in January, expressing concern about the delays and urging private contractors to respect the agency’s decision.

“Wildfire is a serious and ongoing threat to communities across Colorado. Sen. Udall is glad to hear that Secretary Vilsack is committed to preventing red tape and contracting disputes from slowing the acquisition of next-generation air tankers,” said Mike Saccone, communications director for Sen. Mark Udall. “Sen. Udall will monitor the ongoing acquisition process and do everything in his power to ensure that the U.S. Forest Service has every resource at its disposal to protect Colorado communities, watersheds and infrastructure, including next-generation air tankers and repurposed military aircraft,” Saccone said.

Vilsack said the Forest Service has done due diligence to try and reduce the risk of another round of protests. An amended request for bids issues in November 2012 addressed issues raised by vendors who protested the June 2012 award notices.

Udall warned as early as April 2012 that the agency’s aerial firefight resources could be stretched if multiple large fires burned simultaneously around the country. In a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Udall said he wasn’t sure the agency’s air tanker fleet was capable of keeping Coloradans safe.

Just a couple of months later, the Forest Service was scrambling to pull together aerial firefighting resources while major fires burned across the West.



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