The half-horse/half-donkey hybrids are an important part of modern firefighting, though their services have been used by the U.S. Forest Service for about a century. Mule teams, usually in strings of five pack mules led by a horse, are often used to carry equipment and supplies to rugged or isolated locations during fire season. Their strength and balance make them especially valuable in places like the Trinity Alps, where the Coffee Fire has been burning since July 30.
Lisa Radosevich-Craig is a spokeswoman for the Coffee Fire. She says mules are a precious resource when fires are burning on rough terrain, such as in the Shasta Trinity National Forest. “They’re amazing because they can walk almost through anything and through anywhere,” Radosevich-Craig said. “They’re a very sure-footed animal, and can get places that helicopters can’t get to easily.”
The mules can also carry as much as 200 lbs. of gear, and require less food and water than horses would during their daily 20-to-30 mile journeys. Weather and fire conditions that might keep helicopters grounded don’t prevent the mules from reaching fire camps.
The U.S. Forest Service has been using mules since the 1930’s, and though the job description for the mules hasn’t changed, their role as a part of the fire crew has. Mike McFadin, a Wilderness and Trails manager for the Forest Service, says that modern mules are much more than fire-fighting tools. He says that the mules in their crew have become a part of the family, and they are treated with care and respect to make sure that the animals aren’t being strained or injured during long treks. This was not always the case. “Back in the old times, these mules were equipment and they would wear them out in about five years,” McFadin says. But because of the consideration that the mule teams receive today, they are often able to work for 20 years or more.
Though technology will continue to advance, mules will likely remain a reliable part of firefighting efforts in the future.