California Cities Turn To Hired Hooves To Help Prevent Massive Wildfires
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm Steve Inskeep with a way to prevent wildfires. Fires are a part of nature. If you have fuel, meaning lots of dry stuff in a wildland, it will eventually burn. People can keep fires from spreading so quickly by removing some of that fuel in advance. You can try a controlled burn. Hired hands can clear it or hired hooves can eat it.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)
INSKEEP: That's a bit of Megan Manata's exclusive interview with firefighting goats.
MEGAN MANATA, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at Deer Canyon Park in Anaheim, Calif. Pokey, Peggy and the rest of the roughly 400 goats in the park are hungry.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)
MANATA: The city hired these goats as a part of its wildfire prevention efforts. Deer Canyon is long and hilly with a few walking paths in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
JOHNNY GONZALES: This whole embankment going up to the homes, this is the kind of topography that the goats excel in.
MANATA: That's Johnny Gonzales. He hires out his goats to different cities, businesses and homeowners associations across Southern California. These goats have been at this park for about five months clearing out invasive plants and dry brush.
GONZALES: And this is the topography that poses challenges during these wildfire events. And when we can go ahead and reduce the fuel loads and take out the invasive plants and establish the native plants on these banks, you're reestablishing the ecology.
MANATA: The city recently upped its contract with Gonzales to have the goats working nearly year round. He's getting so many requests from other potential clients, he can't take on all of them. One California town even had a GoatFundMe campaign to support bringing in goats for wildfire abatement. Anaheim's fire marshal, Allen Hogue, says the goats are part of their fire management plans because they have a particularly useful skill.
ALLEN HOGUE: So you have where the goats have grazed all that off and see the steepness of it, and that's why we use the goats. It'd be almost impossible for a human to sit there and walk up and down that with a weed whacker or a weed eater.
BETHANY BRADLEY: Goats are really good at eating stuff, right?
MANATA: That's Bethany Bradley. She teaches environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
BRADLEY: The challenge with them, though, is that you can't just do it once. They need to go back time and time again in order to keep controlling that biomass.
MANATA: She is the co-author of a study that recently came out on invasive grasses and plants. Bradley and the other researchers found that invasive grasses double or triple the likelihood of a fire occurring if they're present. In short, they're very flammable, and they're masters of moving and spreading into places where they don't belong.
BRADLEY: And in a lot of cases, like, they're already there in these environments that are going to become better for them with climate change. So they've got, like, a huge leg up on native plants.
MANATA: Using goats alone isn't enough, though. Wildfire embers can be blown over grazed areas onto houses and buildings. The city of Anaheim says the goats are a key part of their fire prevention plans. But they're just one piece of the puzzle that also includes heat-sensing satellite images and wildfire detection cameras. Johnny Gonzales, who hires out his goats, says that they're not just a tool but something more.
GONZALES: One of the best comments I've ever got is that I didn't realize how peaceful it would be to see the goats here. And that's very rewarding in my job where a lot of public perception actually stopped the use of goats in the early stages. And now that that public perception has been opened up and they've seen the benefits, that's been my greatest reward, that the public has had a chance to interact with them.
MANATA: He says the community looks forward to the goats and asks when they'll be coming back. For NPR News, I'm Megan Manata in Anaheim, Calif.
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