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Fire avoidance: Unshoe horses, rent goat herd

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2002


In national forests across the West, cowboys are being asked to pay special attention to the bottoms of their horses' hooves.

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The reason: Metal horseshoes, if scraped against rocks on backcountry trails, can spark wildfires capable of growing quickly into infernos.

At beloved family retreats in the mountains, charcoal grilling of hamburgers and hot dogs is now forsaken. Roasting of marshmallows over open campfires has been replaced by impromptu rain dancing. And lighting up bottle rockets and cigarettes can become a federal offense.

From the sun-scorched chaparral of California to the ponderosa pine of South Dakota's Black Hills, states and communities are taking extraordinary measures this summer to reduce the threat of fire. With July 4 approaching, amid worries that holiday revelers could go too far with backyard fireworks, the focus from now until the start of autumn is on a single watchword – prevention.

"It's scary how dry it is out there," says David Leugers as lightning pricks the timber and smoke drifts overhead from blazes downstate near Durango, Colo.

As proprietor of the Alpine Lodge, a cluster of rustic cabins and a restaurant pressed up against the forested Sangre de Cristo range, Mr. Leugers is playing the role of boy scout himself. This summer he's hired someone to prune aspen trees and clear brush away from his cabins, four hours southwest of Denver.

It's a ritual being carried out intensely by thousands of homeowners in a dozen states. Already, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued tens of millions of dollars to rural fire departments that are helping homeowners with similar projects.

In fact, some fire officials have informed high-risk inhabitants who live in wooded areas that unless they do their part to flame-proof buildings, firefighters may deem the property too dangerous to defend.

Prevention, however, has taken on all sizes and forms. Along the bushy highlands of the California coast and eastward toward the flanks of the Sierra Nevada mountains, farmers are doing brisk business renting out their sheep and goats to eat away fire danger. Literally.

In exchange for modest fees, ranchers loose hundreds of animals on a landscape where they graze through thick grass at the rate of about an acre a day. They turn former flame-friendly slopes into hills that resemble golf course fairways.

Not long ago, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission imported goats to perform their magic outside Redwood City. One operation, Covington Farms, has even set up a web site (

Matchstick conditions

All the vigilance is understandable. So far this year, fires have blackened more than 2.8 million acres – almost three times the 10-year average for this time of year. At least 24 major fires are currently burning in six Western states.

While lightning is responsible for starting the vast majority of fires, many big ones this year have been ignited by humans, either through arson or carelessness, which is another reason for all the precautions.

Leonard Gregg, a seasonal firefighter on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, was charged Sunday with starting the worst fire in state history so he could make money. The big Hayman fire in Colorado was allegedly intentionally set, too, this one by a Forest Service worker.

Given the matchstick conditions, old hands around the West know how easily a fire can start. For instance, Randy Rusk, a cattle rancher near Westcliffe who often hunts with horses, says he sees sparks coming out from his horse's shoes every time he rides.