Chewing Out Fire Danger

After heavy property losses from a recent forest fire in the in Los Alamos, N.M., area, prevention - particularly the best way to clear the brush that fuels intense blazes - is getting renewed attention in the West.

Some California communities think they've found an answer to that perennial problem. They've put goats on the job.

That could be cause for concern, since these animals are notorious for scouring the landscape of anything edible (and to a goat that's nearly everything).

But with goatherds and portable electric fences to supervise them, the hungry ruminants have become a first line of defense against the wildfires that have threatened communities from Berkeley in the north to Laguna Beach on the southern coast.

In Laguna, in fact, the goats have been creating virtual firebreaks - strips where the ground is free of burnable material - since 1993, when a blaze caused more than $500 million in property losses. Searching for a fire depressant, the city hit on goats as cost-effective (600 goats can be rented for $198,000 a year, versus more than $1 million for human crews doing comparable clearing) and reliable (the animals graze virtually round the clock). And the goats have no trouble on steep hillsides.

There are probably not enough goats in the West to clear the brush from all the region's forests. But in a number of places this merger of animal industry and human ingenuity is providing a local solution to a region-wide problem.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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