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In California, wildfires are prevented by crews of unlikely firefighters: goats

The fire department in Glendale, Calif., has been hiring Fire Grazers Inc. to help reduce the city's wildfire risk.
Vanessa Romo
The fire department in Glendale, Calif., has been hiring Fire Grazers Inc. to help reduce the city's wildfire risk.

The end of a quiet residential street in Glendale, Calif., is just one of many battlegrounds in the state's annual fight against wildfire season. And it's being waged by goats.

About 300 of them are spread out along the foothills and steep ridges of the Verdugo Mountains, which loom over multi-million dollar homes at the end of a cul de sac. The goats are busy chomping away on the dried-out vegetation that's exploded after this year's drought-busting rains.

Seemingly oblivious to the 94 F heat, the animals are hard at work devouring several acres of dead, yellowed grasses, scrubby bushes and cactus, as well as some of Southern California's most invasive plants, including star thistle and black mustard.

"There's very little they won't eat. Even things that seem impossible. I don't know how their digestive systems deal with it, but they do," Michael Choi told NPR, squinting out at his herd from under a brown felt cowboy hat.

Choi, 30, is the owner of Fire Grazers Inc., a service that uses its herds of goats to clear brush from hillsides, flatlands and other hard-to-climb terrain. It's a family business that he took over from his father a few years ago and now runs with two other brothers.

Even after more than a decade in the business, he is still confounded by how the goats make such easy work of an array of prickly and painful plants.

"It's mind boggling that they'll even eat star thistle, considering it's so painful to grab," he said. "It's invasive. It just spreads everywhere. And if you try to weed whack it, you wind up getting poked in the face and then all over the body. But goats will come up to that and they'll just eat it up because it tastes good to them."

Choi's company is busier than ever this year after the drought-breaking rains of this past winter. The downpour led to more growth, which has led to greater demand. That, Choi said, has extended his season by a couple of months, from March through what potentially could be the early weeks of 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, noting that he's added a couple hundred more goats to his total "trip," bringing them up to about 900.

It's the herd's last day on this plot of land. Over two weeks, they've cleared about 14 acres of the vegetation that fuels wildfires. (They eat about 1 acre a day.)

And in a few hours, Choi will be transporting the group to their next job in Rancho Palos Verdes, another wealthy enclave surrounded by tough-to-climb terrain. It's one of about five sites the company has going. So far, Fire Grazers Inc. has been contracted by the cities of Torrance, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village, Orange County and even private homeowners with sprawling estates in Beverly Hills and Calabasas.

While the practice of targeted grazing goes back centuries, it has been pushed aside by machines and chemical herbicides in the modern era. But following the unrelenting barrage of blazes in recent years, which have ravaged an average of nearly 400,000 acres of land each year, it's become a bigger part of California's strategy to reduce wildfire risk. Last year, the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection issued a grant for a pilot program testing whether goats can lower the risk of wildfires in a state preserve.

Michael Choi, 30, has taken over the family business. After the drought-busting rains of last winter, he said he's had to buy hundreds of new goats to keep up with the demand of jobs.
Vanessa Romo / NPR
Michael Choi, 30, has taken over the family business. After the drought-busting rains of last winter, he said he's had to buy hundreds of new goats to keep up with the demand of jobs.

Anything you can do, goats can do better

Patty Mundo, vegetation management inspector for the Glendale Fire Department, said it was local residents who suggested the idea of the goats two years ago. Since then, she's brought Choi and his goats back for an annual "Bleat and Greet" event, where the community is invited to get to know the fire-fighting heroes.

It's a great way to raise awareness about the importance of proper land management, Mundo said.

"We've had many fires in that exact same hillside where the goats are," she told NPR. "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 working for the city since 2018, and she said there's been a fire "every single year" with the exception of 2022.

If it were up to her, she'd lease the herd for a much longer stretch, she said. The city owns about 500 parcels of land, and with the budget that's allocated to fire prevention — $62,000, plus another $14,000 specifically for the goats — they can only afford to clear a fraction of it every year.

"It's not fair," Mundo acknowledged. In her role, she said, "I'm holding people accountable to clear their brush, but yet we can't keep up with ours."

The worst is when she gets calls from homeowners wondering when her department plans to eliminate dangerous overgrowth. "They call us to tell us they're concerned ... and it just kills me," she said.

City officials have applied for a series of grants that could more than triple Glendale's fire prevention budget, according to Mundo. That would mean more money to pay for the goats to graze for longer periods.

In Glendale, Calif., a herd of 300 goats cleared out about 14,000 acres of dry brush and vegetation that fuels wildfires.
Vanessa Romo / NPR
In Glendale, Calif., a herd of 300 goats cleared out about 14 acres of dry brush and vegetation that fuels wildfires.

As it stands, Mundo said the goats have saved the city precious financial resources. Brush crews are far more expensive because they rely on power tools, which need fuel. "They have to use heavy equipment like chippers. And sometimes they have to take the vegetation to a landfill. So that's just an added cost," she said. There are also additional fees to remove poison oak, which is common in the Verdugo Mountains.

In contrast, all the goats need is water, mineral and salt blocks, and a large Anatolian shepherd dog to ward off coyotes. They can also climb up steep mountainsides, eat the poison oak and work under the blazing sun without suffering from heat stress or heat exhaustion.

Targeted grazing is just one of many tools to fight wildfires

Lynn Huntsinger, a professor of rangeland ecology and management at the University of California, Berkeley, noted targeted grazing works best when it's used in combination with other wildfire reduction measures, especially prescribed burning.

"In an ideal world, we would have used goats or sheep or even cows, after the big fires we've had in recent years," Huntsinger told NPR.

That would have had the greatest impact in eliminating noxious and invasive plants, because the animals would consume any regrowth of the unwanted vegetation, she explained.

And even in places where there has not been a fire, regular grazing routines over time can eventually exhaust the root stock, preventing them from resurfacing and permanently changing the biomass of the space. That's for the better, according to Huntsinger.

She added: "When we think about wildfire risk reduction and good land management, we need to be thinking like artists, using a wide palette of all of the tools at our disposal."

Back in Glendale, Choi said he's proud to be a part of the effort to make California's urban and rural communities safer.

Reaching down to caress the head of an insistent 7-month-old goat rubbing up against his leg, Choi took in the fire break visible from the bottom of the mountain.

"That line right there could save these houses. It could help save lives. It could give firefighters just enough time to save the people in this community," he said.

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Corrected: August 10, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier photo caption mistakenly said a herd of 300 goats cleared out about 14,000 acres of dry brush and vegetation. In fact, it was 14 acres.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.