(KPAX) As the West's record fire season scorches its way into the fall, air tanker operators like Missoula-based Neptune Aviation continue to scramble to protect communities from the air.

This season is also proving to be a major test of the Forest Service's approach to call tankers "as needed," rather than keeping them available on exclusive contracts.

With fires still forcing thousands from their homes in California, 2020 is a real pressure point for the country's fire protection services. Already forced to adapt to the pandemic, the record heat along the West Coast is pushing the available resources to the breaking point.

And in the skies overhead, it's also a test of the Forest Service's approach to bring tankers on "call when needed" rather than "exclusive use" contracts.

Tanker operators have struggled with the system, where the Forest Service doesn't reserve tankers, but calls for them as fires rage. It's an approach tanker companies protested.

In federal contracting it seems like you always get protests," U.S. Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue told KPAX. "We think, I think, we think we've got a good story and we think we’ll prevail. We think the as needed contract will work.”

For operators like Neptune, "call when needed" keeps them busy, but trying to work around uncertainty.

It does create some challenges for us as a company from a planning standpoint, because realistically we still need to invest in our training and maintenance for the airplanes irrespective of what kind of fire season we're going to have,” said Nupune Aviation Vice President Dan Snyder.

Last year was a perfect example. A very quiet fire season. We still had to produce everything necessary to go out and perform for a much shorter time,"

Twenty years ago, 40, or more large tankers would be under exclusive use contracts. In recent seasons that's dropped to a fourth of that total.

This year it was just 13 until the Forest Service added 11 more, but used an unusual "90 day" call-when-need/exclusive use contract. The contracts were originally set to expire in September and early October.

Perdue believes "call when needed" saves taxpayers money by being more efficient.

We think it's the right balance between owned assets and exclusive use assets and then a call when needed a ratio," said Perdue. "It's like any public safety kind of thing. You can never have enough access for everything Everywhere you have to surge.”