The state of California is no stranger to wildfires.
As of August 2023, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) reported around 4,746 wildfire incidents across the state, a combined year-to-date statistics from CAL FIRE and the US Forest Service.
Many people don’t realize that an abundance of rain at the beginning of the season can actually make wildfires worse.
Increased rainfall or snowpack means taller, denser vegetation. As the summer progresses and drought sets in, there’s now a lot more dry fuel for the fire to use.
Cue the goats.
How Herds of Goats Prevent Wildfires in California
At the edge of a serene residential street in Glendale, California, goats are quietly eating away and covertly fighting wildfires.
Approximately 300 goats are scattered across the foothills and steep crests of the Verdugo Mountains, which cast a shadow over multi-million dollar residences at the terminus of a cul-de-sac.
These goats are diligently removing the withered vegetation that has flourished in the aftermath of this year’s rain showers.
Unperturbed by the scorching 94-degree Fahrenheit heat, the goats graze on several acres of desiccated, yellowed grass, scrubby shrubs, cacti, and even some of Southern California’s most invasive flora, including star thistle and black mustard.
Fire Grazers, Inc., a family-enterprise business currently managed by Michael Choi and his brothers, employs herds of goats to clear out brush from challenging terrains like hillsides and flatlands.
They were hired in the past by homeowner’s associations, city officials, fire departments, and conservancy organizations to clear invasive weeds and prevent disasters like wildfires from happening.
Hiring Goats to Clear Dry and Dangerous Vegetation
This year, Choi’s business is busier than ever due to the rains that shattered the drought earlier this winter.
The deluge spurred growth, escalating the demand for his services.
Consequently, his operational season has been extended by a few months, stretching from March through October.
“There’s so many more people who need the goats. And, we’re moving slower than we normally would, because a goat doesn’t care if there’s more food. They eat at their pace. So we actually had to purchase more goats just to keep up with the jobs we have,” Choi explained, disclosing that he has bolstered his herd by a few hundred more, elevating the count to approximately 900 goats.
The goats successfully cleared around 14 acres of the combustible vegetation that fuels wildfires. It takes this herd about a day to eat down an acre.
To date, Fire Grazers Inc. has secured contracts from cities like Torrance, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village, Orange County, and even private landowners with sprawling estates in Beverly Hills and Calabasas.
Though targeted grazing, sometimes called mob grazing, has deep historical roots, it has been overshadowed by machinery and chemical herbicides in modern times.
Nevertheless, following the relentless onslaught of wildfires in recent years—averaging nearly 400,000 acres of land consumed every five years—it has become a pivotal element in California’s strategy to mitigate wildfire risk.
Pilot Testing Of Firefighting Goats
Last year, the CAL FIRE granted funds for a pilot program testing the efficacy of goats in reducing wildfire vulnerability within a state preserve.
Patty Mundo, a vegetation management inspector for the Glendale Fire Department, said that residents first suggested the idea of using goats.
“We’ve had many fires in that exact same hillside where the goats are,” Mundo said.
“And because it’s right next to homes, the purpose of it was to create a buffer—a fire break—so that if we were to ever have a fire in that area, it’ll stop or, at the very least, slow it down.”
Mundo has been a part of the city’s workforce since 2018, and she noted that, apart from 2022, there has been a fire every single year.
If circumstances allowed, she would lease the goat herd for an extended period.
The city administers approximately 500 land parcels, yet with the allocated budget for fire prevention—$62,000, supplemented by an additional $14,000 specifically for the goats—only a fraction can be cleared annually.
Mundo indicated that city officials have submitted applications for a series of grants that could potentially triple Glendale’s fire prevention budget.
This would entail additional funds to extend the goat grazing period.
Goats Are More Economical, Safer, and Eco-Friendly
On the bright side, the goats have conserved the city’s valuable financial resources.
Brush-clearing crews are significantly costlier, given their reliance on power tools, which demand fuel.
They need trimmers, chainsaws, and woodchippers and often need to haul the brush away when they’re finished.
Not only is it more expensive with a larger carbon footprint, but it’s also a fire hazard which feels very ironic.
The difference between animals and machines is stark.
Goats require only water, mineral and salt blocks, and the company of a sturdy Anatolian shepherd dog to deter coyotes.
They effortlessly ascend steep mountain slopes, consume poison oak, and continue to work under the relentless sun without succumbing to heat stress or exhaustion.
Brea McGrew, a veterinarian, and her firefighter husband, Bob McGrew, have been leasing their goats out to clear brush since 1991.
This California couple has thousands of goats in Dixon, and they lease them out for about $15,000 for two weeks’ worth of eating. Their goats have visited Malibu, Monterey, Oakland, and Berkeley.
For their operation, they set up temporary fencing in the designated grazing location and then haul their goats out.
Alongside the goats are goat herders Ricardo and Jose Surichaqui in their travel trailer, two herding Border Collies, and two Great Pyrenees to guard the goats from predators.
Other Strange Benefits of Intensively Grazing Goats
After the goats have grazed an area, you’re left with no vegetation but a ton of surprises that were once hidden in the weeds.
The land becomes easier to walk, and tons of junk, like water bottles, scrap paper, cardboard, cans, and plastics, are rediscovered.
This allows residents and volunteers to pick up the waste and keep things cleaner.
The goats are also remarkably quieter than machinery.
They can work away near golf courses, parks, and competitions without disrupting anyone’s day or making unpleasant noises.
And personally, I think that goats are more aesthetically pleasing than a bunch of machinery.
Intensive Grazing is Integral to Regenerative Agriculture
Intensive grazing, also called mob grazing, cell grazing, or rotational pasture grazing, is a holistic way to keep goats, pastures, and forests healthy.
It focuses on intensively rotating animals across small, designated areas of land.
When you have a lot of animals in a small area, they compete for food and quickly eat whatever is in front of them, leaving no plants behind.
Traditional grazing methods of putting a few animals in a large field means that the animals are under no pressure, so they eat slowly, and choose their favorite plants first, leaving a lot behind.
Intensive grazing means that the animals have to be moved more frequently, which is more work for the farmer or rancher, but the results are incredibly rewarding.
This technique mimics the natural movement patterns of wild herbivores, allowing for more forage consumption and minimizing overgrazing (since the animals don’t stay in one area for very long).
First, this method promotes better soil health by trampling plant residues and animal manure into the soil, enhancing nutrient cycling and moisture retention.
This is also responsible for reduced wildfire risks.
Second, it encourages diverse plant growth, leading to increased biodiversity and habitat restoration.
Third, as animals are moved frequently, parasites have less time to reproduce and spread, reducing the need for chemical treatments.
About Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture, a broader concept encompassing practices like mob grazing, goes beyond individual techniques to embrace a holistic approach to farming.
At its core, regenerative agriculture seeks to rejuvenate and restore the natural systems of the land.
This involves principles such as minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing biodiversity, incorporating cover crops, and reducing chemical inputs.
Central to regenerative agriculture is the idea that the land should be left in better condition for future generations.
By focusing on soil health and biodiversity, farmers can create ecosystems that are more resilient to pests, diseases, and climate change.
Additionally, regenerative practices often lead to increased carbon sequestration in the soil, which is crucial in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Using Goats to Prevent Wildfires: Traditional Yet Innovative
In a world where wildfires are becoming more frequent and devastating, it’s crucial to explore innovative solutions that can help mitigate these disasters.
The humble goat, with its insatiable appetite for even the most stubborn and undesirable vegetation, has emerged as an unexpected hero in the fight against wildfires.
Through targeted grazing, the goat firefighters chomp away at the very fuel that feeds the flames, creating vital firebreaks that can save homes, habitats, and lives.
The partnership between goats and humans in combating wildfires exemplifies the power of collaboration between nature and technology.
It’s a modern adaptation of an age-old practice that showcases the ingenuity of humanity in harnessing the innate strengths of animals for the greater good.
As we face the challenges of a changing climate, using goats as ecological tools underscores our ability to work alongside nature, drawing upon its inherent resilience to create more sustainable and harmonious environments.