Goats are helping California battle wildfires

Their voracious appetites may be saving lives.

California’s 2020 fire season was its worst in modern history, with more than 4 million acres succumbing to wildfires. 

In the hope of preventing as much damage as possible in 2021, firefighters are calling on some unlikely allies in the battle against wildfires: goats.

California’s wildfires: California has a long history of wildfires spreading during the summer and fall, when temperatures are at their highest and vegetation is at its driest. However, the fires have been getting worse in recent years, and experts point to climate change as the reason.

“This climate-change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University, told the New York Times. “In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.”

We may not be able to do anything to immediately address the climate problem — but goats can do something about the fuel.

Send in the goats: Goats are famous for their willingness to eat just about anything, and that’s made them an increasingly useful tool for mitigating wildfires.

Goats won’t eat a forest, but much of the land scorched by wildfires is shrubland.

“I haven’t seen a goat trip yet.”

Jeffrey Ragusa

By getting the animals to eat away certain areas of dry brush, herders can create buffer zones around homes, preventing wildfires from spreading into populated areas. These vegetation-less areas can also serve as safe spaces for firefighters and other first responders.

“There’s some [instances] that the firebreaks that we cut with the goats stop the fire,” California goat herder Mike Canaday told Newsy. “When you can change people’s lives in that way, it’s an emotional thing that they don’t have to go through. And it’s just huge for us.”

Why it matters: Goats aren’t the only option for clearing away dry brush — humans can also get the job done with machinery or controlled fires — but the animals are the safer option, when possible.

“There’s always a threat of injury to personnel,” Glendale fire marshal Jeffrey Ragusa told the Straits Times. “I haven’t seen a goat trip yet.”

Looking ahead: Ragusa is currently evaluating the use of goats for wildfire management through a small pilot project with environmental planning company Sage Environmental Group.

“We started hearing a lot about goats, both from community members, other fire departments, other cities,” he said. “And the more we looked into it, the more we realized how effective they can be, how environmentally friendly they can be.”

If the pilot project goes well, the city might move forward with a larger operation — letting brush that might otherwise fuel wildfires find a home in goats’ bellies.

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