Animal Firefighters

Beavers, goats and donkeys are all doing their bit to keep forest fires at bay.

For decades, scientists have recognized that the North American beaver, Castor canadensis, provides a multitude of ecological benefits throughout its range from northern Mexico to Alaska. Beaver ponds and wetlands have been shown to filter out water pollution, support salmon, sequester carbon, and attenuate floods. Researchers have long suspected that these paddle-tailed architects offer yet another crucial service: slowing the spread of wildfire.

A new study concludes that, by building dams, forming ponds, and digging canals, beavers irrigate vast stream corridors and create fireproof refuges in which plants and animals can shelter. In some cases, the rodents’ engineering can even stop fire in its tracks.

These 'lifeboats' don’t merely protect beavers themselves: A broad menagerie - including amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals - hunker down in these beaver-built fire 'refugia'. Although wildfire is a vital force that rejuvenates habitat for some creatures, like black-backed woodpeckers, it can devastate other animal populations.

This new research means that forest management teams throughout North America are going to start taking the benefits one of their most valuable firefighting allies.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, as OGN reported on Friday, goats are being called in to action. Forest Grove, a city 25 miles east of Portland, is using a herd of 230 vegetation-eating goats as a tool to thin undergrowth on undeveloped city owned property, urban forest and park property. During a wildfire, piled up plant material can act as fuel and increase the chances of catastrophic fires. Managing vegetation near homes, forests or other undeveloped areas lowers the potential for wildfires to spread and makes lives and properties less vulnerable, according to the US Department of the Interior's office of Wildland Fire.

On the other side of the Atlantic in Andalusia, southern Spain, ‘Burritos-Bomberos’ – ‘Donkey Firefighters’ – annually protect the scorching Doñana region’s natural parks from wildfire, sparked by dry, brittle grass and the intense Spanish sun. The threat of fire and widespread destruction to land and wildlife hangs permanently over this arid region, which is the natural habitat of one of the world’s rarest and most secretive animals, the Iberian lynx.

Every day in summer, the 21 donkeys of ‘El Burrito Feliz Association’ chow down hard to combat the threat of fire in an organised and military way by systematically eating all the dry grass that grows between and under trees and bushes in areas of high ecological value – thus preventing the terrible fires that have historically ravaged this environmental paradise.