Goats can help save Bay Area communities from wildfires
September 2020 was a dark shade of blood-red. For weeks, the air was toxic enough to not be able to breathe. The combination of record-high temperatures, dry vegetation accumulation and high temperatures caused the Bay Area’s skies to turn red. Many Bay Area towns and cities, including Santa Rosa, San Rafael and Saratoga, are located in wildland urban interfaces, and intermixes. These intermixes and interfaces are cities that are nestled in ecosystems with flammable plants, making them particularly vulnerable to fire damage.
We both hail from Palo Alto-Orinda wildland-urban interfaces. We’re also students at Claremont Colleges where we study climate change. Goats seem like a simple, effective way of protecting wildland-urban interfaces communities from wildfires or noxious smoke.
Goats don’t have a preference for food. They will eat any vegetation, including shrubbery, broadleaf and lower branches. Even plants not native to California are enjoyed by goats, such as black mustard. California’s black mustard is a common plant, with it blooming along our highways, hillsides, and mountains. It blooms in spring, then dies in early summer. The dry stalks are left behind in warmer temperatures. Black mustard is not widely cleared because it outcompetes native vegetation and has no native customers. black mustard, and other invasive species, become firewood during wildfire season.
This dry vegetation has accumulated for over a century, turning our suburbs, hillsides and forests into tinderboxes. Following the 1910 firestorm, dubbed the Big Blowup, the 10 a.m. fire suppression policy was adopted along with other fire suppression techniques. Fire suppression reduces the frequency of fires and keeps ecosystems free from flammable buildup.
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State forest services have adopted the thousand-year-old practice by Indigenous peoples of cultural burn over the past two decades. Although controlled burns of dead vegetation can be effective, there is a limit to the amount of land that can safely be burned. Also, it is more difficult to schedule and manage prescribed burns during longer fire seasons.
Cultural burning is not the only way to protect people, homes, or infrastructure. It is necessary to add goats to the mix. One goat can consume 12 lbs of brush per day. Although this may seem like a lot to goats, it is because they graze in groups.
A hundred goats can consume thousands of pounds of vegetation from dozens of acres in a single fire season. After clearing out dry debris, herds can be fenced in and removed from their designated area. Goats can also access terrain that is difficult to reach with chainsaws or Weed wackers. Moreover, seeds and other debris can’t be passed through their digestive tracts. Grazing is safe, effective and easy to manage.
Your backyard is where you can find grazing. Caltrans uses goats to flock to U.S. 101 in Sonoma. BART leases goats to do summer “haircuts” on Walnut Creek and Hayward hillsides. Indian Valley College also uses controlled grazing on its grassy terrain. Local companies such as Living Systems and Chasin Goats Grazing have their goats travel with them to various properties in the Bay Area. They are an economical way to remove local fuel loads.
This is how you can protect your community. Encourage your local schools, businesses, and parks to use goats when there are fire-prone areas. Talk to your local fire department about how to implement grazing to lower fuel loads. Although goats may seem trivial to solve a serious problem, they are one of the most important assets we have against wildfires in wildland-adjacent areas. Let’s ensure we use them. (Goats can help save Bay Area communities from wildfires)