This is a story about man and nature, wilderness and civilization, and the blind ruthlessness of unchecked fire.
It's about the move to embrace ancient, rural technology to solve a modern urban/suburban problem – and how to get more bang for the buck.
This is a story about goats. Hoofed, horned, don't-stare-at me-while-I'm-chewing goats.
At the intersection of Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Centennial Drive – adjacent to a public university and a posh suburb – 350 flop-eared, paunch-bellied, teeth-gnashing examples of nature's least-discriminating epicurean are hard at work.
The "work" is vegetation removal – grass, weeds, manzanita, poison oak – by molar and mandible. While these rented Angoras, Nubian, Spanish, and other goats do what comes naturally – gnaw and bleat – Tom Klatt is saving $800 per day over his alternative: humans armed with noisy weed whackers.
He's the head of the office of emergency preparedness at the University of California, Berkeley. It uses goats so that one of America's most fire-prone regions doesn't have a repeat of the country's most costly fire that consumed 3,500 homes (one every 11 seconds) in an afternoon in 1991.
Fifteen years after that blaze killed 25 people and reduced several hillsides to charred chimney farms, Mr. Klatt and others say the hired goats are a key reason that a fire of that magnitude hasn't occurred again. That assessment comes just months after another method of grass removal – prescribed burning – scorched 20,000 acres in southern California.
"Goats are a 24-hour mini-weed-eater," says Deputy Fire Chief David Orth of the Berkeley Fire Department. "For decades, we have been trying to break this region's cycle of having a giant fire every 10 years or so ... and at this point goats are playing a bigger part in that every year."
In 14 area fires since 1923, it's been the same pattern. Steep canyons draw 60-mile-per-hour hot, dry offshore winds from the northeast over the highly flammable built-up brush and nonnative eucalyptus trees. Fires leap from underbrush to tree canopies while winds fan them through dense housing communities that firefighters find difficult to reach due to narrow, winding roads.
After 1991, eight local fire agencies formed the Hills Emergency Forum to better coordinate regional prevention and response strategies. Since then, the use of goats to eradicate vegetation has increased. Research has found that goats cost less (about $700 per day per herd), are more versatile and effective, and have the public's affection.
"The public loves them.... There is something about watching animals graze, seeing a very rural activity right in the middle of their community," says Cheryl Miller of the Hills Emergency Forum.
Before the fire-prone months of September and October, people may see as many as three different herds of more than 300 in parks and fields in Berkeley and Oakland. Homeowners sometimes use a goat or two for the afternoon. But that can be a problem because a goat will devour anything edible, including patio furniture and house siding. There is also "the good old-fashioned barnyard smell" to consider, says Ms. Miller.
But for the most part, "[people] love seeing the goats, the dogs that herd them, and the sheep herders as well, as long as they are not downwind," she says.
The goats are contained by electric fences, which hired herders put in place. They move fast, about an acre per day. Border collies and other guard dogs move the goats from site to site – and stick around to protect them from predators.
Besides manzanita and poison oak, the goats feast on yellow star thistle, mountain misery, and pampas grasses. They balance on the steep, rocky banks, standing on hind legs to reach low-hanging branches.
Fire officials like the fact that goats eliminate "the natural fire ladder" – vegetation below eight feet that allows brushfires to run up taller trees to the high leaf canopies, which send embers into the air, endangering areas downwind.
Because goats eat the tops of plants rather than the roots, they are considered less damaging to native plants than other grazing animals. Thinning the plants also causes less erosion from over- stripping and helps till and fertilize the soil.
"We are absolutely happy with what the goats do," says Klatt. "We are not preventing the occurrence of wildfires, but we are making them more manageable so we can stop them before they get to homes."
More important, say Klatt and others, is what the use of goats says to homeowners. New regulation and enforcement have greatly reduced the risk of fire here since 1991, but violations still exist.
"Residents drive by and see the goats each season and get an outside reminder of the absolute vulnerability of these communities to fire," says Miller. "It serves notice that it's time to get their own acts together."