Arnie Cooper, USA TODAY
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Munch, munch. Munch, munch.
It's just past 4 p.m. on a late September day and Henry, a tan colored mixed-breed goat, along with 68 of his buddies, is chowing down on chemise, ceanothus, thistle and assorted native grasses. Or as fire officials term it, fuel. This 2-acre patch of land, bordered by a small clump of homes and a popular hiking trail in the Santa Barbara foothills, is tinder dry - a big concern with peak fire season now here.
"They'll eat for about 20 minutes, then lie down like they're pregnant," Lorraine Argo says referring to the herd of mostly wethers (castrated males) she's just released to their enclosure. Also in the mix: two Anatolian predator dogs to protect the goats from coyotes, rattlesnakes and nosy domestic hounds.
"You can call them 'Killer 1' and 'Killer 2;' we won't release the names," Argo says laughing. There's also an electric fence to keep people out and the goats in. "It's 10,000 volts but almost no amperage," adds Argo's husband Ian Newsam. "I've been shocked more times than all the animals combined."
The couple runs Brush Goats 4 Hire, a Santa Barbara County outfit? that uses "target browsing" to help homeowners and municipalities deal with the area's most damaging phenomenon -- wildfire. Paid for by a federal Fire Safe Council grant of $67,000 procured by the local homeowner's association, the goat project comprises an increasingly critical tool for battling the devastating firestorms that frequent the area.
As for their use on the national level, Roger Ingram, farm adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, says, "It's still a kind of embryonic industry, but there is certainly more and more growing demand. It's going to continue to evolve because the fire risk is not going to go away."
Michele Steinberg, Firewise Communities program manager for the National Fire Protection Association, says goats have been used in Emigration Canyon, Utah, Hidden Valley Ranch in Prescott, Ariz., and in Broomfield, Colo., earlier this spring.
In this region, wildfires are an inevitable consequence of the region's climatology: humidity-sapping down-slope winds combined with the chaparral, a uniquely fragrant array of scrubby plants which need to burn every 30 years or so to propagate. The cycle has existed for millennia and continues unfazed by the million-dollar homes now sharing the landscape throughout southern California and many parts of the West.
But getting to it can be near impossible given the skin-shearing brush, steep ravines and a blazing hot microclimate that frequently evades the coastal fog below. And while Capra aegagrus hircus can't compete with a chainsaw when it comes to the thickest brambles, these goats are uniquely equipped to navigate the steep terrain.
"Our concept is to put the goats where they shine the best. On hillsides where you can't put machines or where it's dangerous for people to be. These goats are amazingly agile," Newsam says.
All this keeps the local fire department happy.
Ann Marx, the wildland fire specialist for the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department, says goats work especially well in areas that have regrowth. "The project in Mission Canyon is going to be very effective because that vegetation was consumed by the fire and is already coming back."
Marx is referring to the 8,733-acre Jesusita Fire that incinerated 80 homes in these canyons nearly four years ago. Although that's a relatively small burn compared with the 87,284-acre blaze that ravaged 259 dwellings outside of Fort Collins, Colo., this summer, residents such as Barbara and Albert Lindemann don't want a repeat performance this fall.
During the May 2009 fire, the Lindemanns, whose property borders the enclosure, did precisely what fire and police officials advise against - they stayed to protect their home.
"One of the cops gave us a really hard time. 'You're gonna fry!' he said. I told him I've been preparing for a fire for over 40 years and when it came I'm sure not gonna put my head between my tail and run," Albert Lindemann says.
Indeed, the couple, both retired history professors in their 70's, belong to what you might call the "elite" class of fire preparedness.
In addition to maintaining two donkeys (Pollyanna and Angelina) to help manage the brush, the Lindemann's installed metal window shades. And they stock an anti-fire foaming agent called "barricade" which they began applying to all flammable materials around their home as soon as they saw that first column of smoke. They also filled every available container with water, including the bathtubs.
"We wanted every spare amount of water available in case we needed to go out after the fire," Barbara Lindemann says. Their home survived without any real damage; nor were there any injuries.
Luckily, just weeks before Jesusita broke out, Newsam's goats had cleared the same parcel of land.
"If they had not put the goats in, there would've been much more of a firestorm," Albert Lindemann says.
Not that goats are a panacea. Marx points out that in 15-foot chaparral, "goats aren't that effective." And Robert Muller, a plant ecologist and former director of research for the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, says there are caveats with using goats, notably their potential to disturb the native vegetation so it doesn't return, which can cause erosion on steeper slopes.
"People need to understand goats can be used in a way that's dangerous and they can be used in a way that's pretty benign," he says.
In fact, Newsam says the "workers" at Brush Goats 4 Hire are actually improving the soil. The goats' hoof action helps aerate the earth and their fertilizer adds nutrients. Plus Newsam says they can even help control erosion.
That's because the goats' footprints end up being deep enough to slow down the flow of water, and since they eat mostly leaves instead of the entire plant, the root structures are left intact, which helps hold the soil.
Add to that the fact that except for the munching, goats are quiet, require no fossil fuels to operate and "process" the brush on site eliminating the need to haul it out or burn it. And remember, says Argo, who just finished writing Brush Goat Henry, a children's book about her son Constantine's favorite pet goat, "They're also entertaining and fun to look at while they do what we call work."
Indeed, the pastoral scene offers residents a refreshing alternative to the crews of brush-clearing workers with their noisy gas-powered machines.
"He's like the pied piper," proclaims Argo, pointing out her husband being followed by a trail of goats on a distant ridge.