Goats clear flames’ fuel like ‘a salad bar’
They’re small, ill-tempered, incessantly hungry and, if given the chance, they could play a much larger role in preventing the next round of California’s deadly wildfires. In a vast field next to a community college and over the fence from a state prison, about 200 goats are gnawing their way through a thicket of green foxtails that’s almost knee-high less than two weeks into spring.
“It’s like a salad bar. They love it,” said George Gonzales, who created his brush-clearing goat service 15 years ago.
Gonzales is one of a hodgepodge of goat and sheep herd owners around the state offering their services for brush control. This year, they say they have been swamped with requests after an unusually rainy winter resulted in a lush new growth. That’s because those moist, brilliant green hillsides could turn deadly when fire season begins in a few months as temperatures rise and the brush turns brown, tinderdry and highly flammable.
Wildfires at both ends of California last year claimed 89 lives and destroyed more than 13,000 homes and businesses, with $11.4 billion in insured losses, the California Department of Insurance reported. Gov. Gavin Newsom took the rare step last week of declaring a state of
Goat power is “another tool in the toolbox. It has its little niche, and that’s a good thing.” Scott McLean California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
emergency ahead of this year’s fire season, clearing the way to spend millions on projects to reduce the danger.
Livestock, particularly goats, might be part of the solution, proponents said. The animals can get into narrow canyons and gullies that mowers can’t reach. Plus, they’re eco-friendly.
They’re “another tool in the toolbox,” said Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It has its little niche, and that’s a good thing.”
Out in Chino, a suburb east of Los Angeles, Gonzales’ Ranchito Tivo goats will chomp through some of the nastiest brush and weeds, including poison oak. He has 350 South African boar goats, which he says are hardy and well-suited to summer heat. It takes about 200 of them to clear about an acre a day.
Besides the 100 acres of state-owned property they have cleared for years in Chino, the herd is set this spring to chow down on brush surrounding a local school and a homeowner’s estate.
“I can’t take any more work,” he said. When worried homeowners call, “I tell them I can’t help them.”
Other goat and sheep operations around the state report likewise. Mike Canaday, who owns about 8,500 goats and sheep as part of the Living Systems Land Management company he started with his wife in Coalinga, said it’s hard to remember a year when it has been so busy. He said he usually sends about 450 animals at a time, with goats preferring brush and sheep eating the grass. The animals rent for $500 an acre and up, and the price doubles in the high season with a 5-acre minimum.
The herd can’t just be let loose. He said the animals need to be transported, fenced in, given water and supervised by a couple of herders.
“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Canaday said with a sigh.
One of his biggest triumphs came during the Woolsey Fire north of Los Angeles in November, a fire that destroyed 1,643 structures before burning into the Pacific Ocean.
At one point, the fire lay siege to a 1,226-home development called Morrison Ranch Estates in Agoura Hills, where Canaday’s goats had cleared a fire line. As hoped, the flames came to halt when they hit the line, though flying embers destroyed two homes and damaged a third.
“Even the firemen said it if wasn’t for the goats, it would have been a huge amount of damage,” said Jan Gerstel, president of the Morrison Ranch Estates Homeowners Association.
Canaday’s bid had been a quarter of what it would have cost to hire a human crew to cut the fire break. Locals have become used to seeing goats every year. “We have goat parties (with) kids setting up lemonade stands,” Gerstel said.
There have been unhappy incidents. One year, a goat standing on its hind legs to reach leaves on a tree limb managed to open a gate. A resident arrived home to find “300 goats in his backyard eating his roses and pretty much everything else,” Gerstel said.
The incident blew over once the man was compensated. Now, after the fire, “goats are the heroes,” Gerstel said.
Gonzales said lawmakers are recognizing the role goats and other livestock can play.
“The fire danger is tremendous. Now they realize it,” he said. “Goat power is the way to go.”
George Gonzales’ herd of goats in Chino, Calif., is available – and in great demand – for brush control.