BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract

Above: Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

For the previous three years the Bureau of Land Management had 33 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. As we enter the 2017 wildfire season there are none.

In 2014 the agency awarded EU contracts for 33 SEATs that guaranteed one year with a 100-day Mandatory Availability Period and four additional optional years. In 2016 the vendors were notified that two optional years, 2017 and 2018, would not be activated. One of the affected aircraft companies told us that the BLM said the reason was a lack of funds. (UPDATE May 31: Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokesperson, responded today to an earlier mail from us, explaining that the funds allocated in that 2014 contract had been spent, therefore they had to start over again with a new contract.)

In August, 2016 the agency began the solicitation process for a new EU contract. After it was awarded four vendors filed a total of six protests with the Government Accountability Office. As of today, May 30, 2017, four of those have been dismissed and two are still undecided.

Currently the only BLM SEAT contract in effect is a Call When Needed, or On Call contract that was awarded several weeks ago. A couple of days ago there were seven SEATs actively working in the Southwest Geographic Area on an On Call basis.

An aircraft vendor that operates SEATs told us that one of the issues his company is concerned about is the evaluation process for rating and selecting which vendors receive contract awards. He said the BLM places far too much emphasis on the empty weight of the aircraft while not considering enhancements that may add weight, but contribute to effectiveness and safety. The lightest SEAT is automatically favored, he said, while those with a backup radio, single point fueling behind the wing, GPS, a better performing Trotter retardant gate, ADS-B, larger engine, or a larger prop are penalized.

He said, “I just want to see a fair and impartial evaluation”.

One of the factors that almost destroyed the large air tanker industry around the turn of the century was the U.S. Forest Service’s over emphasis on the lowest bid price. This forced potential tanker vendors to resort to discarded aircraft designed for World War II and the Korean War and gave them little incentive to perform routine but expensive inspections and maintenance. In 2002 when the wings literally fell off two large air tankers in mid-air killing five crew members, the USFS started to re-think their lowest cost policy. Over the next 10 years the number of large air tankers on EU contracts declined from 44 to 9. Following that lost decade the USFS contracting process and the vendors’ fleets were reinvented.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the BLM said, “The BLM will ensure that we have adequate SEATs/wildland firefighting resources for the 2017 fire season, regardless of how we contract our aircraft. The BLM will provide an adequate response to all wildfire activity, whether it’s an extreme, normal, or below-normal fire season this year.”