California calls on goats to prevent wildfires

Marc arcas | EFE
Photo Credit: Unsplash

San Anselmo, CA – For centuries, goats have been the best allies of humanity in preventing wildfires, and now California is counting on them to help ward off the enormous, destructive blazes that every summer seem to get worse.

After the devastating Tubbs Fire that in 2017 took 22 lives and laid waste to a large part of the wine-growing regions of Napa and Sonoma, their neighbors in Marin County north of San Francisco decided to get to the root of the problem so nothing like that would ever happen near where they lived, which is when they brought in the goats.

Since then, 1,200 goats have fed every springtime on the steep mountainsides of Marin County with a very clear mission – to create a 200-hectare (490-acre) firebreak some 20km (12mi) long.

“We call them four-legged firefighters, we really do. They are contributing greatly to the safety of the community, they are contributing to reducing climate change over time. They are extremely popular here in the community,” Todd Lando, a retired firefighter and executive coordinator of FIRESafe MARIN, told EFE.

Though this is an ancient method that is still practiced in many parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean, Africa and Latin America, the grazing of goats to “clean” woodlands of weeds and prevent fires has scarcely ever occurred in the United States, so Marin County has to bring in goatherds from abroad.

Lando said they had analyzed alternatives for creating a large firebreak free of combustible vegetation in a way that would be effective and not prohibitively expensive.

The transport and maintenance of more than 1,000 head of livestock in a mostly residential area is no easy task and required the cooperation of multiple entities including the Fire Department, ranches, a private school and filmmaker George Lucas, who has an estate here.

Lando also noted the benefits goats bring to the environment and for meeting the objectives California has set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for in case these animals are not used, motorized machinery would be required to do the same job.

“They are quiet, they’re very easy on the land. And what we find is, the following year the areas that have been grazed grow back even more beautifully, with more wildflowers and greener lush vegetation than what we saw before. So, they really have an aesthetic benefit to the community and a safety benefit,” he said.

FIRESafe MARIN uses computer-devised models to determine where fires are most likely to start, which way the flames are likely to spread once they break out, and which human communities will be affected, information that is used to decide where to send the goats to clear the land.