MCKENZIE BRIDGE, Oregon (STPNS) -- U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced on Monday that the agency has issued a notice of intent to award contracts to five companies to provide a total of seven Next Generation airtankers for wildfire suppression.

“We are moving ahead to modernize our fleet as part of our overall strategy to secure the best, safest airtankers available for fighting wildfires across the country in the years to come,” said Tidwell. “It is critical that we complete the Next Generation airtanker contracting effort as quickly as possible as we face the prospect of another challenging wildfire season with a dwindling legacy airtanker fleet.”

The U.S. Forest Service intends to award exclusive use contracts for Next Generation airtankers to Minden Air Corporation; Minden, Nev., for a BAe-146; Aero Air, LLC; Hillsboro, Ore., for two MD87s; Aero Flite, Inc.; Kingman, Ariz., for two Avro RJ85s; Coulson Aircrane (USA), Inc.; Portland, Ore., for one C130Q; and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC; Adelanto, Calif., for a DC-10.

Officials said the companies were selected because their proposals were determined to offer the best value to the government based on a technical evaluation of their airtanker concept, organizational experience and past performance, combined with pricing. The contracts are for a base period of five years with five one-year options (a total of ten years if all contract options are exercised).

The Forest Service is transitioning to the Next Generation airtankers to replace its aging airtanker fleet. “Legacy” aircraft have been used as part of the Forest Service aviation program for years, and in some cases, decades. All of the Next Generation airtankers are turbine powered, can carry a minimum of 3,000 gallons of retardant and have a cruise speed of at least 300 knots when fully loaded.

The agency is working to bring all seven Next Generation airtankers into service over the next year. Large airtankers acquired through legacy exclusive-use contracts will continue to be part of the Forest Service’s strategy to maintain capability and response until there are adequate numbers of Next Generation large airtankers. The agency recently awarded legacy exclusive-use contracts for airtankers to Minden Air Corporation for one P2V and to Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., of Missoula, Mont., for six P2Vs and one BAe-146.  

In 2013, the Forest Service expects to have available for wildfire suppression up to 26 airtankers, including seven Next Generation airtankers, eight Legacy aircraft, up to three Very Large Airtankers through contracts and eight airtankers through an agreement with the Department of Defense. The agency will also have up to three water scoopers, dozens of single-engine airtankers and hundreds of helicopters.

Fire activity during the 2012 wildfire season resulted in about 9.3 million acres of private, state and federal land burned nationwide, the third highest amount since at least 1960, the earliest date with reliable records. Significant fire potential is predicted to be above normal in 2013 in much of the West, including almost all of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Idaho, as well as parts of Colorado, Utah and Washington.