Neptune air tankers logging thousands of miles over Montana wildfires

Florence resident and photographer Rick Paris made a trip to Neptune headquarters to share this photo of T-40 battling the Lolo Peak fire raging near his home. (Rick Paris via Neptune Aviation/Facebook)

Neptune Aviation has flown nearly 600 aerial firefighting missions across Montana this summer, with four of the company’s 14 tankers currently assigned to state fires.

And the wildfire season may only be reaching its halfway point.

“Montana wildfires are the national priority right now,” said Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation’s COO. “Neptune has flown 559 aerial firefighting missions in Montana this summer, and we have dropped more than 1.3 million gallons of retardant on Montana fires.”

As early as February, Neptune began flying fire missions in Chili, the first time the company had landed a contract outside North America.

But with the summer fire season in full swing in the Northern Rockies, the aircraft are staying closer to home. More than half of the company’s aircraft have flown missions from Forest Service tanker bases in Missoula, Helena and Billing.

“Fire activity is intense this summer in Montana,” said Snyder. “We play a key support role for the fire fighters on the ground – the men and women who are tasked with fighting the fire directly.”

Neptune now uses two aerial platforms for retardant missions in Montana, including the fabled Lockheed P2V tankers, which will be retired at the end of the 2017 fire season. They’re being replaced by the newer BAe-146 jets that are also flying missions.

In all, Snyder said, the Forest Service has utilized eight of 14 Neptune aircraft for retardant missions on Montana fires. Other Neptune aircraft are working fires in Idaho, Utah, Oregon and California.

“The Neptune pilots, flight crews and mechanical teams don’t deviate from procedure based on being in Montana,” Snyder said. “They still have long, hot days filled with fire, smoke and multiple missions.”

With more than 147,000 square miles of territory, fire activity in Montana changes from region to region, Snyder said. That includes the heavily timbered forests of western Montana and the grasslands in the state’s eastern reaches.

“Neptune can modify the way the fire retardant is dropped based on the type of wildfire and where the drop is located,” Snyder said. “We use different strategies depending on the nature of the fire.”