Inside the world of California's fire-reducing goats, a quirky but popular weapon against California's wildfire epidemic

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Inside the world of California's fire-reducing goats, a quirky but popular weapon against California's wildfire epidemic
  • With California's wildfires expected to worsen in coming years, the state is looking at different ways to prevent fires.
  • There are the usual methods like fire retardant and controlled burning — and then there are goats.

They're called nature's lawnmowers for a reason.

Goats are hungry, agile, and far from picky. Across California, herds of goats are being used to prevent wildfires — alongside more traditional forms of fire prevention.

Goats are carbon-friendly, prefer weeds to native plants, and can get up steep hills that humans and machines can't get to.

Here's how goats are working to prevent California's fires.

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Every year, wildfires rage across California. Less than 25 years ago, in 1999, 273,000 acres burned in California. This was considered a bad season back then, but as the population in the state has grown and moved deeper into wildfire territories, it's only gotten worse.

Every year, wildfires rage across California. Less than 25 years ago, in 1999, 273,000 acres burned in California. This was considered a bad season back then, but as the population in the state has grown and moved deeper into wildfire territories, it's only gotten worse.
Firefighters near a home on fire in Santa Rosa in 2020.Samuel Corum/AFP/Getty Images

In 2021, more than 2 million acres of wilderness in California burned. Last year was declared "unexpectedly quiet" when 362,000 acres burned — this is still almost 100,000 acres more than in 1999.

In 2021, more than 2 million acres of wilderness in California burned. Last year was declared "unexpectedly quiet" when 362,000 acres burned — this is still almost 100,000 acres more than in 1999.
Flames rush uphill behind cars toward Meyers, California, in 2021.Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Overall, California is having larger and more intense fires and experts warn it's only going to get worse.

Sources: National Geographic, New York Times

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To combat the fires, there are the traditional methods like spraying fire retardant. In 2020 and 2021, the Forest Service used about 50 million gallons of the substance.

To combat the fires, there are the traditional methods like spraying fire retardant. In 2020 and 2021, the Forest Service used about 50 million gallons of the substance.
A California resident watches an air tanker drop retardant as the Electra Fire burns towards her home in the Pine Acres community of Amador County on July 5, 2022.Noah Berger, File/AP

It's not just a reactive measure either, but one that can be sprayed before the fire season and can last for months if there's no heavy rain.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, King5

There's also a need for residents and the government to work out which homes and communities have become too risky to remain where they are.

There's also a need for residents and the government to work out which homes and communities have become too risky to remain where they are.
A goat herder shepherds a herd of goats from Mascauser Vineyards and Ranch in Napa Valley, California, on September 27, 2020.Samuel Corum/AFP/Getty Images
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That's where the goats come in.

That's where the goats come in.
A goat grazes on dried grass on drought-stressed land as part of city wildfire prevention efforts on August 9, 2022 in Anaheim, California.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Goats have become a mainstay for fire prevention. It takes about 100 goats to graze over an acre in a day. They thin down plant coverage, making it harder for fires to spread.

Goats have become a mainstay for fire prevention. It takes about 100 goats to graze over an acre in a day. They thin down plant coverage, making it harder for fires to spread.
A goat stands on its hind legs to reach a branch to eat in Anaheim in 2022.Mario Tama/Getty Images
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They're quieter than lawn mowers and gentler on the environment than pesticides.

They're quieter than lawn mowers and gentler on the environment than pesticides.
A goat is seen chewing in South Pasadena in 2019.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

They've also become increasingly useful as invasive weeds flourish. The National Park Service calls these weeds "LA's Evil Plants" because they grow and dry out quickly, increasing the risk of fires due to how easily they burn.

They've also become increasingly useful as invasive weeds flourish. The National Park Service calls these weeds "LA's Evil Plants" because they grow and dry out quickly, increasing the risk of fires due to how easily they burn.
Goats graze on a hillside in Irvine in 2018.Mark Rightmire/Digital First Media/Orange County Register/Getty Images

"If you throw a bunch of matches into a forest, some small percentage of them might actually start a fire, but if you throw a bunch of matches into a big hay pile, there's a good chance that many of those will catch fire," Bethany Bradley, an environmental conservation professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, told NPR.

Sources: National Geographic, NPR, NBC Los Angeles

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Goats have a secret, fire-fighting weapon — their hunger. Their metabolism is unusually high, according to City Grazing executive director Genevieve Church.

Goats have a secret, fire-fighting weapon — their hunger. Their metabolism is unusually high, according to City Grazing executive director Genevieve Church.
A goat is seen with his mouth agape on a branch while grazing in South Pasadena in 2019.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

They can also climb up steep hills that are otherwise difficult for humans or machines to reach.

They can also climb up steep hills that are otherwise difficult for humans or machines to reach.
A herd of goats graze on drought-stressed elevated land in 2022 in Anaheim, California.Mario Tama/Getty Images
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They're happy to eat invasive plants like ivy and blackberries. And in general, they're not picky eaters.

They're happy to eat invasive plants like ivy and blackberries. And in general, they're not picky eaters.
Goats graze on dried grass on Bay Area Rapid Transit property on July 27, 2022 in Walnut Creek, California.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: CNN

Brea McGrew, who had a herd of goats working across Oakland, Berkeley, Monterey, and Malibu since as early as 1991, told the Smithsonian Magazine: "They like their food right at eye level. At home, the goats ignore the wonderful green grass and look longingly at the scruffy taller stuff beyond the fence."

Brea McGrew, who had a herd of goats working across Oakland, Berkeley, Monterey, and Malibu since as early as 1991, told the Smithsonian Magazine: "They like their food right at eye level. At home, the goats ignore the wonderful green grass and look longingly at the scruffy taller stuff beyond the fence."
A goat grazes on on Bay Area Rapid Transit property in Walnut Creek, California in 2022.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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And if something looks particularly tasty, they're willing to work for it. McGrew said they worked together, with one goat getting onto its hind legs to get a branch down so that others could have a good chew.

And if something looks particularly tasty, they're willing to work for it. McGrew said they worked together, with one goat getting onto its hind legs to get a branch down so that others could have a good chew.
Goats eating vegetation in Glendale, California in 2021.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Goats are also carbon-friendly. The only thing they leave behind are their droppings, which serves as a good fertilizer.

Goats are also carbon-friendly. The only thing they leave behind are their droppings, which serves as a good fertilizer.
A goat named Princess, who is part of City Grazing’s working herd.City Grazing/Supplied
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What's even better is that after a goat eats an invasive plant, the seed goes through its digestive tract. When it is excreted, the seed can't grow again.

What's even better is that after a goat eats an invasive plant, the seed goes through its digestive tract. When it is excreted, the seed can't grow again.
A herd of goats in Anaheim in 2022.Mario Tama/Getty Images

But goats aren't exactly a new innovation to fire prevention efforts. Laguna Beach was using a herd of 400 to keep the bush down back in 1993.

But goats aren't exactly a new innovation to fire prevention efforts. Laguna Beach was using a herd of 400 to keep the bush down back in 1993.
A herd of goats grazing on a hillside in Laguna Beach in 2000.David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty Images
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And Redwood City was using a whole lot of them in 2002.

And Redwood City was using a whole lot of them in 2002.
A herd of 400 goats eat away dry grass and brush in Redwood City, in 2002.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Herds of fire-reducing goats have chewed bush right across California, including in San Francisco, Sacramento, Irvine, Pasadena, Anaheim, and Napa Valley.

Herds of fire-reducing goats have chewed bush right across California, including in San Francisco, Sacramento, Irvine, Pasadena, Anaheim, and Napa Valley.
A herd of goats waiting to be let out to graze a hill in Irvine California in 2018.Mark Rightmire/Digital First Media/Orange County Register/Getty Images
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But according to the San Francisco Examiner, the use of goats represents a shift in California's long-term fire management strategy, which used to leave large sections of grassland and forest untouched.

But according to the San Francisco Examiner, the use of goats represents a shift in California's long-term fire management strategy, which used to leave large sections of grassland and forest untouched.
A goat herder corrals a herd of goats being evacuated during a fire in Napa County in 2020.Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

They often have great names, too, like Smaug, who is part of the herd used by City Grazing in San Francisco.

They often have great names, too, like Smaug, who is part of the herd used by City Grazing in San Francisco.
Smaug the goat.City Grazing/Supplied
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And this one with an impressive beard is Bitsy.

And this one with an impressive beard is Bitsy.
Bitsy the goat stands on a tree stump.City Grazing/Supplied

This is Ickarus standing alone on a dreary day.

This is Ickarus standing alone on a dreary day.
Ickarus the goat standing in a field.City Grazing/Supplied
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And here’s Curry looking pretty pleased with themselves.

And here’s Curry looking pretty pleased with themselves.
Curry the goat.City Grazing/Supplied

"They all have names," Church told CNN. "Most of them know their names, too, but they don't necessarily come when you call. Because they're goats."

"They all have names," Church told CNN. "Most of them know their names, too, but they don't necessarily come when you call. Because they're goats."
Goats grazing on dried grass.City Grazing/Supplied

Source: CNN

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For all of their qualities and their great names, goats alone are not the answer.

For all of their qualities and their great names, goats alone are not the answer.
Grass hangs out of the side of a goat's mouth as the animals graze on dry grass and alfalfa on drought-stressed land as part of city wildfire prevention efforts on August 9, 2022 in Anaheim, California.Mario Tama/Getty Images

"In terms of managing fuel loads, mowing is probably just as effective as grazing except on steep or rocky terrain," Robert Freese, program manager at the Irvine Ranch Conservatory, told National Geographic.

Source: National Geographic

They can also be expensive compared to hiring weed trimmers — except when the grazing is done on a massive scale.

They can also be expensive compared to hiring weed trimmers — except when the grazing is done on a massive scale.
Herds of goats roam fields in Laguna Beach where they eat brush as part of the city's fire prevention measures.Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images
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And they're not machines. Goats, like Curry here, need rest.

And they're not machines. Goats, like Curry here, need rest.
Curry the goat sleeps.City Grazing/Supplied

While goat grazing used to be done seasonally, with increasingly bad fire seasons, demand has gone up.

While goat grazing used to be done seasonally, with increasingly bad fire seasons, demand has gone up.
A close-up photo of a goat's face.Mario Tama/Getty Images
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But goat herders are facing another issue — costs. Last year, a new law changed overtime rates for goat herders. It ensures that herders are paid 168 hours per week, because they are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This meant wages for sheepherders basically doubled.

But goat herders are facing another issue — costs. Last year, a new law changed overtime rates for goat herders. It ensures that herders are paid 168 hours per week, because they are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This meant wages for sheepherders basically doubled.
Grazing goats alongside Alissa Cope from the goat herding company Sage Environmental Group in 2021.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

As Freese told National Geographic, the best way to prevent fires involves a number of methods, including controlled burning, herbicides, and manually clearing brush.

As Freese told National Geographic, the best way to prevent fires involves a number of methods, including controlled burning, herbicides, and manually clearing brush.
Goats graze on a hillside in 2019 in South Pasadena.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
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Goats are just one of the methods, although undoubtedly they're the most memorable method. As Steward Andree Soares, who owns grazing company Star Creek Land, told the San Francisco Examiner: "Once people see it, they can't unsee it."

Goats are just one of the methods, although undoubtedly they're the most memorable method. As Steward Andree Soares, who owns grazing company Star Creek Land, told the San Francisco Examiner: "Once people see it, they can't unsee it."
Goats protecting Laguna Beach homes in 2000.David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty Images