SE­CRET WEAPON

Goats clear flames’ fuel like ‘a salad bar’

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Chris Wood­yard

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.”

HARRISON HILL/USA TO­DAY

Ge­orge Gon­za­les’ herd of goats in Chino, Calif., is avail­able – and in great de­mand – for brush con­trol.

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