By David Beasley
As firefighters battle the Sequoia Complex fire in the Sequoia and Inyo National Forests, they have teams of sturdy, hard-working helpers that can carry heavy loads of supplies through tough terrain.
These hard-working helpers are mules.
The animals haul tools, food and water, and other supplies through the forest, the U.S. Forest Service said.
The mules help get supplies to firefighters when smoke from the fires prevents helicopter pilots from seeing the landing zones.
Mules have hauled hose, gasoline and diesel for burning operations, and fire-retardant wrap to protect historic buildings.
The mules are handled by “packers,” such as Trent Peterson.
“It’s one of the coolest things,” Peterson said of working with the mules. “It’s the greatest privilege and honor to be doing this. The Forest Service is public service, we’re all out here serving our country and serving our land. “
Mules working with the Sequoia Complex firefighters belong to the U.S. Forest Service’s Region 5 pack team, which traces its history all the way back to the early 1900s.
Mules are typically used in roadless areas that can only be accessed by helicopters or trails; Michael Morse, co-director of the Forest Service’s Region 5 Stock Center of Excellence, South Zone; told the Kern Valley Sun. They can also tolerate smoke.
“It doesn’t prevent them from working,” Morse said. “They’ll sneeze a little bit more, they’ll cough a little more. But I haven’t seen in my career that it has a long-term effect at all.”
Packers on a horse or mule will typically lead a string of five mules tied together with ropes and saddled with material weighing 150 pounds or more.
“The mules are trained to follow each other in a string,” Morse said. “They’ve generally been together for a long time. When I go on a fire, I take the same five mules I’ve had for years.”
Mules are not only strong and surefooted, they’re also smart.
“The reason we use mules is because they will not put themselves in harm’s way,” Morse said. “When you are in a fire situation and you are in terrain that is not suitable to travel in, a mule will not go. They make the decision to prevent themselves from getting hurt.”