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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Missoula-Based Fire Aviation Company Helps Battle California Fires

Neptune Aviation

A Missoula-based fire aviation company is pulling planes out of retirement to help battle California’s devastating wildfires.

Two of Neptune Aviation’s legacy P2V air tankers just can’t be kept out of the fight.

The familiar red-tailed, decades-old, propeller-driven aircraft were officially retired a week ago Saturday.

“And then the fires started in California," Kevin Condit, Neptune's spokesman, said. "CalFire called us and asked Neptune to send every tanker than we could to the state. So Tanker 5 and Tanker 14 responded immediately.”

Those two tankers will soon be joined by Neptune’s entire fleet of modern, larger and more powerful jet tankers. That adds up to nine of Neptune’s aircraft that are – or will soon - battle the catastrophic California wildfires.

Those fires have killed at least 13 people, destroyed over 2,000 homes and businesses and scorched 115,000 acres.

Kevin Condit says Neptune’s pilots only wish they could have been deployed sooner:

“The team here at Neptune really likes to hit the fires before they cause some of the devastation of the kind that’s occurred in California," Condit said.  "We’re going out to do the best we can and hopefully protect some homes and lives as these fires continue to rage.” 

Even though the old P2 tankers are officially retired, Neptune has so-called ‘call-when-needed contracts’ with several states including California. That means if Neptune has free planes and the states have a need for them those contracts can be immediately implemented.

The P2V’s will only be able to continue that arrangement through the end of this calendar year. Then, they will be truly and permanently retired from firefighting duty.

Five of them will be taken out of service and displayed at aircraft museums around the country.

Tankers 5 and 14 will remain airworthy and under Neptune’s control for use at air shows.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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