SJRWMD using fire horses to help douse flames
The St. Johns River Water Management District has a unique group of firefighters helping to conduct prescribed fires on its conservation lands. Yeller, Joe, Maude, Grumpy and Kid are fire-trained working horses.
“A unique feature of the district’s prescribed fire program is our long tradition of using fire-trained horses to carry district land managers into the burn,” said St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Ann Shortelle. “Using horses helps to increase staff’s efficiency and the speed at which they can travel. The higher perch also improves staff’s visibility during a burn.”
District land managers conduct periodic prescribed fires as a safe way to apply a natural process to ensure ecosystem health to meet the needs of many plants and animals while also reducing the threat of wildfires.
For 23 years, fire horses have been used by district land managers in the burn program. Over the years, 18 horses have been an integral part of the program. The horses belong to Danny Mills, a district land management specialist who trains horses with his wife, Ruby, to work fires.
Today’s working horses are Sunshine Kid, Doc’s Little Legacy, Freckles Moon Dust, Prince San Badger and Maude. Mills also has two backup horses, Eli and Tank, and “junior fire horses in training,” Little Man, Uno and B.B. There are also four fire horses enjoying retirement — Jeff, Little Boy, Fat Boy and Hank.
In addition to prescribed fires, the horses are used to post boundaries and inspect logging on district lands. When they aren’t working, they graze on district-owned pastureland in Volusia County.
The district owns or manages nearly 700,000 acres of land, acquired for the purposes of water management, water supply, and the conservation and protection of water resources. These lands largely consist of wetlands or historically wet areas. The horses are typically used for prescribed burns on those properties with open grassy areas, not marshy or thickly wooded tracts.