Fire Retarders That Go Baaaaa

Their Efficiency in Removing Brush and Grass--the Old-Fashioned Way--Is Legend

by Robert Sanders

The summer heat had passed but prime fire season wasn't over, so last week some 60 goats were grazing overgrown vegetation on campus-owned land in Strawberry Canyon to get rid of weeds and brush that could fuel a fire.

The goats--angoras, nubians, Spanish and others rented from Goats R Us--are an important part of the campus's vegetation management program run by Dale Sanders, a senior planner in the Office of Physical and Environmental Planning; and Ken Schmitz, associate director for Grounds Services.

The goal is to cut back vegetation around the campus perimeter, primarily in areas around buildings and on the border with Tilden Park, and areas near private homes. Both goats and student-manned ground crews get rid of dried grasses and "ladder" fuels--vegetation up to eight feet above the ground--which can help a fire jump to the upper branches of trees and spread more rapidly.

Campus fire mitigation coordinator Maria Morales, a 1994 forestry graduate and expert on wildfires, supervises both goat and human crews. Since spring the human crews, numbering as many as 11, have wielded chainsaws and weed-whackers to clear more than 20 acres along the campus's borders, while goats have munched through another 25 acres.

"We're not going to stop a fire," she acknowledges, "but we can reduce the flame length and intensity. This buys us time so that fire crews can get there and have time to deal with it."

She and Sanders also are taking advantage of the goats' presence to conduct much-needed research on the best way to manage goat grazing. They periodically photograph the grazing area and weigh the amount of vegetation remaining, noting which plants are untouched and how close the goats crop the remainder. What they find they hope to turn into a photo guide for fire management professionals to use in the field.

The goats have been a hit with the neighbors too. Most of the goats have been bottle fed and love to be petted. In fact, when they finally left last week, neighbors near the fire trail off Panoramic Place feted them with home-baked goods. "Our human crews were never treated so well," she says.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
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