Firefighters are Using Pack Mules to Deliver Supplies into the Trinity Alps Wildfires

Mike McFadden getting mules ready. Photo by US Forest Service/Jay Burkhalter

The Red-Salmon Complex Fire has grown to 4,278 acres in the Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests. Much of the fire is deep in the wilderness of the Trinity Alps, which poses significant challenges to provide supplies to the firefighters on the front lines. That’s why Forest Service officials are turning to the time-honored tradition of using pack mules to deliver vital supplies to the front lines.

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest has seen many things during its long history, and the Trinity Alps Mule Pack has been an important part of that history.  For more than 70 years, the mules have been hard at work in the Forest doing many important tasks, but one of the more important is their support helping firefighters.

The mules carry on a proud tradition for the forest service and still use skills that pre-date the California gold rush.  Stationed in Weaverville, in a barn built in the 1930’s, the mules got the call this week that they are needed at the Red Salmon Complex Fire located between the Six Rivers and Shasta Trinity National Forests.

The mule team will be used to carry much needed supplies to fire crews that are fighting the wildfires.  Crews are located on the steep and treacherous mountains and camp or “spike out” there overnight to avoid having to travel back and forth daily to the base camp.  Re-supplying the crews can be a tough task that often requires vehicles, or helicopters to do the job, but when the terrain or weather and smoke conditions are unfavorable, the reliable mule team is called in. 

Mules are used for many reasons, as Mike McFadden the mule’s handler explains.  Mules have been called the steadiest, toughest, and smartest of the trail animals.  Mules can carry between 120-150 lbs. of cargo apiece, they are very sure-footed, and frees up the helicopters to do other tasks such as bucket work and crew transport. 

Photo by US Forest Service/Jay Burkhalter

The current stable consists of mules of different ages and personalities and the newest members are named Chicken and Waffles.  This pair was adopted from the San Diego Zoo and they are being trained for the rigors of the trails.  They’re not quite ready for the trails yet, but at just five years old they have a lot of time to learn.  Sophia Ferguson, an apprentice in her second year with the team, has her favorite mule named Otis.  She says the mules all have their own personalities and are very smart.  From affectionate to stubborn and ornery, the handlers and mules form a bond that when on the trail is essential to get the job done.

These hard working, half horse, half donkey hybrids left Thursday morning, for their two-week assignment. A stock camp will be set up for them to eat and rest and they will embark on one mission a day of supply delivery, just another mission in the long history of the mules and the forest, but a very pivotal piece to the success of the fire suppression. 

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California


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