Clearing inflammable brush and creating defensible space have long been recognized as key preparation for buildings near wildland to give them a better chance of surviving wildfire.
But how best to do what can be difficult and challenging work on steep slopes?
For a hilltop treasure--the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley--authorities have long called on teams so skilled at clearing brush they can do it while eating lunch. Fact is, that's pretty much how a herd of goats does it--chowing down on dry groundcover, treating potential fire fuel as if it's a salad.
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"It benefits the goats, but it certainly has benefited us," said supervisory curator Randle Swan, among those convinced the goats deserve to share at least a portion of the credit in helping firefighters protect the Library last week as the Easy Fire burned uphill toward the hilltop on which it sits. Incident Command made protecting it a priority for both air tankers and firefighters on the ground. At the same time, Library leadeership and Ventura County Fire Department officials had confidence in the defensible space provided last May by a herd from 805 Goats.
This was one of the first big jobs for the Conejo Valley based goat grazing service, launched just a year ago, and stepping into the hooves of brush clearers that in years past had been brought in from farther away.
"I knew what the goats had done, but I was hoping there wouldn't be much re-growth," said Scott Morris, the owner of 805 Goats. "We had a nice firebreak that was there, and the goats did their job."
Clearance of 13 acres around the Reagan Library, along with another critical site in Ventura County on the north side of Ojai, is arranged by the Ventura County Fire Department. This year 805 Goats was the only local company to bid.
Morris and his co-founder wife both have day jobs--she's a teacher, he an employee benefits consultant--but he said they saw need for a local herd dedicated to serving the Conejo Valley area. Their herd has grown to some 140 goats. He touts them as an eco-friendly solution, quieter than weed-wackers.
Assuming responsibility for naming the goats, the Morris children have paid tribute to artists as they display a flair for puns, as in Vincent Van Goat, Goatzart, and Selena Goatmez.
Goats aren't just ideal candidates for brush clearance because they love to eat -- they're also skilled and tireless climbers. To keep them from discovering the client's roses and other delectables, they do need to be contained with flexible fencing, which the herder will reset during the course of the day as the goats are guided from pasture to pasture.
The cost runs about $1,000 to $2,000 per acre, depending on conditions. The past week, they have been clearing 15 acres on a private ranch on the south slopes of the Simi Valley. It was their second visit to the property this year, returning to trim back what had grown and dried since spring.
"Seems like a great way to go," said Greg Manke, the ranch's contractor who made the arrangments with 805 Goats.
Months before the October Easy Fire surrounded the Reagan Library, goats had been deployed to chew through brush that sprouted after the wet winter months. During the morning, flames could be seen through the floor-to-ceiling window inside the library's stunning Air Force One pavilion. As it was, the fire split and burned around the library on both sides, shrouding the complex in thick smoke and raining the structures with ash and embers.
Firefighters were positioned near the library, which was closed to visitors for the day. Flames came to within about 30 yards of the complex, but several water drops and firebreaks helped protect buildings.
The exterior of the library has scorched in spots, but no significant damage was reported.
"Everything worked the way it was supposed to," Swan said after the fire. "The buildings are unharmed."
That's due to the efforts of firefighters, including those with four legs and a healthy appetite for fire protection.