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Photo of small plane dumping fire retardant chemicals.
Small agricultural aircraft are particularly well-suited for the fire program due to their speed, agility, relatively low cost, and mobility. (NIFC)

Ag Planes Provide a Valuable Tool for BLM’s Firefighting Toolbox

By BLM’s National Interagency Fire Center Staff

Anyone living in an agricultural area has likely seen spray planes buzzing low over fields, deftly negotiating the airspace mere feet above the ground and only pulling up in steep arcs to reverse their paths before dropping back near the surface. 

In the early 1980s, an idea was born:  Why not use these agricultural spray planes to help fight wildfires, particularly in the rangeland environment?  The planes are, after all, highly maneuverable.  They can land almost anywhere.  And, unlike their bigger cousins—the large air tankers—they are built specifically to deliver a liquid payload. 

The idea caught on, and testing and evaluations were conducted in 1984 and 1985 near Hemet, California.  An agriculture spray plane was first used on a wildfire in the Joshua Tree National Monument in 1987.  By 1990, use of the planes had spread to several states, and the BLM instituted a separate program for single engine air tankers (SEATs), as they’d come to be called.

“These aircraft are particularly well-suited for our fire program due to their speed, agility, relatively low cost, and mobility,” said Mark Bickham, who retired at the end of 2010 as the BLM’s only SEAT program manager since the program’s inception in 1990.  “They also are the only retardant-dropping aircraft still in production and being improved, which bodes well for the future.”

With the exception of a few water-scooping airplanes, the large air tankers used in firefighting are contracted by the Forest Service and, as of 2011, were predominantly excess military aircraft that were not originally designed to deliver liquid loads such as retardant.  The SEATs’ load (approximately 800 gallons) is smaller than the large air tankers’ load, but their mobility, speed, and accuracy make them ideal for fighting fires on the expansive BLM lands in the West.  They are also supported by portable retardant operations, which can easily be set up at any location.  With mobile support and the ability to land at the smallest of airstrips, they can provide quick return trips and are effective against range fires.

Between 1998 and 2003, the number of SEATs on exclusive-use contracts with the BLM swelled from 6 to more than 20 before gradually declining back to 11 in 2012 due both to budget concerns and moving exclusively to more efficient, faster, and higher capacity airplanes.  Since approximately 2003, the number of SEATs available on call-when-needed contracts has remained fairly steady at around 60.  

For Joe Freeland, who has worked with SEATs as a firefighter, an incident commander, and a state fire management officer for the BLM in Idaho, the SEATs have proven to be a valuable tool in the firefighting toolbox.  “For our fuel types and terrain, particularly throughout the Great Basin, they (SEATs) are one of the few tools that get us the most in terms of effectiveness,” Freeland said.  “They are up there alongside engines, dozers, and helicopters in effectiveness on most BLM land.”  He added that SEATs are particularly helpful in efforts to protect important sage-grouse habitat, a critical concern for fire and natural resource managers.  “The speed and capability of the SEATs to get to and check new fire starts in or near critical habitat areas makes them an especially effective tool in helping protect sage-grouse,” Freeland said.

For a number of years, the BLM had trained pilots in fire operations at the SEAT Aerial Firefighting Academy in Safford, Arizona.  In 2011, the academy was moved to the Forest Service simulator facility at the now-civilian McClellan Air Force Base at Sacramento, California.  As a part of that move, two flight/mission simulators configured as Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) were added at the facility and integrated with the other fire aircraft simulators to provide pilots with exposure to simple and complex tactical situations. 

The new facility and simulators also provide a wider range of pilot evaluation elements, Bickham said.  “Flight operations in the fire environment are unique, and providing this level of training and simulator experience is key to building and maintaining safe and effective operations,” he added.