George Gonzales is a goat herder that is using his goats to help prevent brush fires, an issue that continues to plague California each year.
Harrison Hill, USA TODAY
CHINO, Calif. — 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 fieldadjacent 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 are almost knee-highless 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 of brush. That’s because those moist, brilliant green hillsides could quickly turn deadly when fire season begins in a few months as temperatures rise and the brush turns brown, tinder-dry and highly flammable.
California wildfires at both ends of the states 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 emergency ahead of this year’s fire season, clearing the way to spend millions on projects to reduce the fire danger.
The proclamation gives the state the power to waive some administrative and regulatory requirements in the name of public safety with the goal of protecting 200 of the state’s most vulnerable communities. It provides for 35 high-priority projects to reduce the timber and brush.
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” of fire prevention, said Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It has its little niche and that’s a good thing,” he said of wildlife fire prevention.
Out in Chino, a suburb east of Los Angeles, Gonsales said his Ranchito Tivo goats will chomp through some of the nastiest brush and weeds, including poison oak.
In total, he has 350 South African boar goats, which he says are unusually hardy, 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 also slated this spring to chow down on brush surrounding a local school and a homeowner’s estates in nearby hills.
“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 the same issue.
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’s been so busy — and his prime season hasn’t even officially begun. It generally runs from April through August.
To some extent, the demand has caught some by surprise in a business where “at certain times it goes crazy then dies down a little bit,” he explained. From his base in California’s agricultural Central Valley, his operation runs crews to both ends of the state.
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, with the price doubling in the high season and a five-acre minimum.
The herd can’t just be let loose. He said they need to be transported, fenced in, provided with water and supervised by a couple of herders to make sure they don’t break loose.
“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Canady 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, California, where Canady’s goats had previously 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.
Canady’s bid had been a quarter of what it would have cost to hire a human crew to cut the fire break. Local residents 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, however, once the man was compensated. Now, post-fire, “goats are the heroes,” Gerstel said.
That kind of success has led others to wonder how expanded grazing could reduce fire risk. Cattle, for instance, not only consume grass, but they can clear vegetation by stomping around on it all day. Yet ranchers complain they have been gradually squeezed out of a lot of prime grazing land over the years by development and environmental concerns. Now, with wildfire prevention taking priority, there might be a new role for them.
Tony Toso, first vice president of the nearly 2,000-member California Cattlemen’s Association, knows the issue first hand. Flames from the Detwiler fire that burned near Mariposa, California, in July 2017 crept within 30 yards of Toso’s home where cattle had grazed. Other homeowners weren’t as fortunate. The fire consumed 67 homes.
“More introduction of grazing on public lands can be a good thing,” Toso said. “It’s not the whole enchilada, but it’s a good effort to try to reduce these fuel loads.”
But moving around cows can be more complicated than goats or sheep. They would require sturdier fencing, plus cows drink 10 to 15 gallons of water a day, said Karen Sweet of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, a group that works to bring ranchers, conservationists and others together.
The economics, however, could be favorable for taxpayers: Ranchers typically pay for grazing land, in contrast to goat and sheep owners who rent out their animals.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district includes Santa Rosa and other northern California towns devastated by fires over the past two years, said he’s willing to consider new ideas. He’s proposed a wildfire warning center that can monitor the weather, help deactivate power lines and mobilize firefighting resources. And he said he’d be willing to take a look at enhanced grazing
Gonzales said there’s going to be a new recognition of the role that goats and other livestock can play.
“The fire danger is tremendous. Now they realize it,” he said of lawmakers. “Goat power is the way to go.”
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