How an Army of Goats Could Help Prevent California Wildfires

The state is anticipating a terrible fire season.
June 11, 2021, 1:49pm
​California goats grazing on dry grass.
California goats grazing on dry brush that is highly flammable. (California Department of Water Resources)

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California has unleashed an army of goats to munch away at overgrown brush and grass throughout the state in hopes of reducing the risk of wildfires this summer. 

State agencies have deployed the animals to roam, eat, and wipe out highly flammable vegetation. Recently, in an area near Lake Oroville in Northern California, between 350 and 400 goats cleared nearly five acres of land. And on Sunday, 1,500 goats are scheduled to begin clearing 34 more acres in the area—by eating everything from invasive species to poison oak to thistle. The animals have also been contracted out to different cities around the state concerned about wildfires, including Anaheim, Oakland, and Los Angeles

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The initiative is part of the state’s “Fuel Load Management Plan,” started in 2012, which is aimed at reducing large patches of overgrowth throughout the state—a major source of fuel to wildfire spread. 

Originally, the state used boots-on-the-ground crews of people armed with chainsaws and wood chippers to clear brush. But California has decided that in some areas, it’s goats, not humans, that can help the most. 

“They eat everything,” Kryssy Mache, an environmental scientist at the California Department of Water Resources, told VICE News. And they can also reach up to five feet in the air to nibble tree branches. “It’s just another cool concept that we're using. It’s not just humans going out and making the difference—we can also use goats.”

Goats have actually been used for the past decade in the state to help with other management projects, like clearing shrubs near water levees. Still, the goats-for-firefighting initiatives have become increasingly popular, according to Mache. 

But the goats are usually just Phase One. In the fall, human crews will come in and trim up area that goats cleared to ensure it remains less vulnerable to fire, according to the DWR

The goats can be deployed nearly anywhere, from family-owned farms to city-owned parcels of land. They’re particularly useful on rugged terrain. 

“If the slopes are too steep, we’ll use goats,” said Mache. “Otherwise maybe we’ll use heavy equipment.”

The area that the goats recently cleared in Lake Oroville experienced a devastating fire in 2018. One town was almost completely burned down, and 86 people died

California’s fire season has already started, and combined with a major drought, it could be the worst one yet. The state has already seen a 26 percent increase in wildfire activity compared to last year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The state is expected to experience above-normal fire potential throughout the summer. 

Correction: This article previously said that goats were scheduled to clear 1,500 acres on Sunday. It has been updated to reflect that 1,500 goats are scheduled to clear 34 acres.