William Simpson is familiar with wildfire like a lot of people in the American West. In California's rural Siskiyou County, overgrown grass and brush can cause deadly fires. Four people were killed in the McKinney fire.

Four years ago, Simpson's home was the most at risk from a wildfire. The fire burned for 16 days before it was contained.

Simpson toldNPR that the fire came up over the ridge. All the trees were burned and the forest was destroyed.

Simpson's land and community were not at risk. The Wild Horse Fire brigade is credited by him.

Large areas that were grazed open became safe zones for Cal Fire personnel and equipment that were stationed in front of the fire when it got into the area where our local herd of wild horses had reduced the fuel. The horses mitigated the fire.

Simpson wants to re-wild horses rounded up by the BLM and placed in government holding facilities.

The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act

The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 requires the BLM to manage the nation's mustangs. It was passed by congress to protect America's wild horses and burros. The BLM can order helicopter roundings whenever it determines there are too many horses.

There is controversy surrounding the rounding up. Sometimes the BLM helicopter swoops down above frightened wild horses, chasing them, until they're sent into traps on the range.

"After this marathon of terror, they're then put into the corrals and these animals have never been in any kind of confinement," said a lawyer who authored a law review article critical of the BLM's rounding practices.

Horses can panic if they are trapped. Videos show them trying to escape and attacking other horses.

"They're fighting the fence lines and they're jumping the fence lines," Stangebye says. It is horrible for the animal. Some horses are killed.

The BLM says the situation is unfortunate and that it's unavoidable. The horses are shipped to the BLM holding facilities. The agency has an adoption program.

Some of the horses are sent to slaughter by kill buyers and end up in auction houses. A lot of people live in BLM holding facilities. The BLM spent about $90 million on feed and care for 58,314 horses in captivity and another $50 million on rounding them up.

With today's hotter-burning megafires killing off entire swaths of forest and incinerating towns, Simpson says holding wild horses captive is not a good idea.

It's like putting the fire department in jail during fire season if you keep wild horses out of the wilderness.

The Horses and the Environment

Simpson lives on the edge of the wilderness with his partner. There are clumps of trees on the land that is home to about 90 free-roaming horses. Simpson's cabin is at the top of a steep dirt driveway that overlooks a large lake.

He describes the view from the west towards the national forest.

The top of Mt. can be seen from the south. Simpson gestured to the volcano's peak, which was 14,179 feet high. We have Oregon two miles away.

Simpson lives among and studies these horses, a herd made up of about 20 family bands, using an embedded observation method similar to the study of Chimpanzees in Africa. Simpson is familiar with all of his study subjects, they are all important to him.

He asked the yearling if he was going to come over and see us, as we moved our interview into a pasture below the cabin.

Simpson pointed to the horse standing a few yards away. That's a horse. He was named Mystic by us.

He moved towards the chestnut horse. Candyman believes that he's a tough boy.

He pointed to the mountains above where they were by the rocks. They can go to Oregon in an hour.

Simpson said that the horses tread lightly. They use the same game trails deer and elk created, trimming flammable grass and brush along the way, for about five-and-a-half tons of it each year.

Today, that is done mostly on mixed-use public range lands, along with livestock operations where ranchers and others have hunted out the predators. Wild horse herds grow without mountain lions, bears and wolves. Resource scarcity on the ranges can lead to resource competition with cattle.

Natural Wildfire Abatement and Forest Protection Plan

Simpson wants to fix the problem with his proposal. Rewilding and relocating intact families of wild horses away from areas of contention with livestock and other land users and placing them on some of the nation's 112 million acres of designated wilderness is what it calls for.

Simpson says that the areas are at great risk and are burning catastrophically. Horses help to protect the trees and the environment.

The ability to reseed plants is one of the advantages of riding horses in wilderness areas. Horses pass live, whole seeds through their droppings.

Simpson picks up a piece of dry horse feces.

There are compost balls with seeds in them. He says it's a product of millions of years of evolution.

The manure is rich in vitamins and minerals that help protect the seeds.

He says it's like a potted plant when it gets wet. It had a survival advantage over other native seeds when it started to grow.

The same amount of vertical clearance fire officials recommend to homeowners who want to protect their properties can be achieved by trimming tree limbs five to six feet above the ground.

They break off the limbs when they scratch around. Simpson pointed to a nearby Juniper shading some of the horses and said that there was a lot of limbs busted off.

Grass and brush and forest understory are key fuels that allow flames to climb from the forest floor into fragile tree canopies in a majority of western fires. They can quickly spread and kill trees.

Fire burns slower where animals trim the fuels. Deer help make that happen but habitat loss and other factors have decimated western deer populations. Since the 1960s, the number of wildlife in California has gone down.

Three million tons of grass and brush were grazed by those deer. A lot of fire fuel.

There are studies linking the loss of large-bodied plant eaters to catastrophic wildfires.

He says that catastrophic fire in North America is a new paradigm because of the loss of large body herbivores.

The paradigm was made worse by warmer temperatures.

The relocation of wild horses and their rewilding into wilderness areas most threatened by destructive wildfires are required for the horses to be able to fill the void left by the deer population.

Simpson believes that the ideal areas are too rugged for ranchers to run cattle. They like to stay in one area and eat it all. A free-roaming horse can move as much as 20 miles a day. Simpson said that predators were the key driver of the movement.

The soil affects the cow differently than the horse.

Simpson explains that a cow has a smaller hoof than the other animal. Cow hooves sink into the soil in areas that are wet. Hoof penetration and soil damage are limited by the wide and rounded hooves of horses.

These and other aspects of horse life in the wild are included in Simpson's study.

He says that not many babies survive in this area. There are packs of coyotes. The adults will be taken by the lions and bears. The herd growth that they see on BLM lands is not what we see.

The hardest part of his work is documenting the losses. He understands that it's nature's way of keeping herd numbers low in a way that artificial birth control cannot.


"All we need to do is locate these horses in the wilderness, where they evolved and where they have their co-evolved predator, and we can save a lot of money," Simpson says. We change the entire wildfire regime.

He says each horse will give $72,000 of grass-and-brush clearing-work over its lifetime. Simpson bases this on the fact that a wild horse eats the same amount of fuel over the course of 15 years.

The value goes up if less destructive fires occur. According to researchers at the University of California, Irvine, the Klamathon Fire was one of 8,500 fires that burned through California in the last year.

"We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars in additional savings if we affected that by 2 or 3 percent," he says.

Simpson's enthusiasm is not shared by the BLM.

The agency is concerned about horses in wilderness areas. Re-wilded horses in wilderness areas may overpopulation and cause harm to the environment.

Simpson's plan to humane transfer captured wild horses to government agencies for use as work horses is gaining traction among fire-weary elected officials on both sides of the California-Oregon border.

Scientists are also interested. Julie is a professor at Arizona State University.

"That seems like a win-win solution, to me," says Murphree, who studies wild horses and is a board member for Simpson's non-profit Wild Horse Fire brigade organization.

The modern horse is linked to the horse that originated in North America about 1.7 million years ago.

She says that horses have evolved in North America. They should be considered natives.

Simpson says there's a growing body of evidence that supports the horse's existence.

The evidence supports the idea that wild horses are well suited to provide grass and brush in the rugged regions of the West. She acknowledges that there can be consequences when a species is reintroduced.

Mountain lions might go after more of the deer population if there were more wild horses.

There is a concern and there is a way to resolve it.

Scientists often use an adaptive management strategy, which relies on rigorous monitoring and real-time adjustments in the field.

With safeguards in place, she supports William Simpson's push for a pilot program to test whether America's wild horses can provide a solution to the American West's wildfire problem.