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Goats Earn Their Keep as Fire Prevention Tools

Helix Water District and other customers sing their praises, says Hire-A-Goat owner Brad Woolf.

This month, Brad Woolf was on the road, checking on the work crews for his brush clearing and management service. He stopped at various work sites around the county, checking that each crew had adequate water and making sure the on-site security guards were doing their jobs.

Securing the worksites from outside interference was his main preoccupation. Motivating his workers has never been a problem.

Woolf is the owner of , which rents out goats to clear brush from residential and commercial sites. He describes his service as “an environmentally friendly and cost effective means of fire prevention through the use of goats in reducing fire fuel loads.”

“Besides being just darn cute, goats are the perfect brush eating machines,” said Woolf. “They will eat most plant species and provide a green alternative to herbicides, burning debris, or hand and machine crews.”

“They also provide a natural process of brush and land management that allows for the removal of invasive weed species,” Woolf said, clearing the way for restoration of native vegetation.

Woolf, whose background is in information technology, started Hire-A-Goat about two years ago. But the genesis for the business goes back to 2003, when he almost lost his Ramona dream home and ranch to the Cedar Fire. “We were determined never to let this happen to our family again,” he said.

He and his wife undertook extensive research on fire prevention and firescaping techniques. They attended what is now known as the California Multi-Species Grazing Academy, an annual two-day intensive program in livestock and pasture held by UC Davis at various locations around California.

Woolf said his research showed the value of goats in land and brush management and fire fuel load mitigation.

One example of mitigation is reducing “ladder fuels.”

“Vegetation in the form of dry grass, small bushes, brush and small branches on trees provides fires a ‘ladder’ to the crown, or the tops of the trees,” said Woolf. “Crown fires are among the most dangerous types of fires. Once the tree tops are involved, they tend to shoot burning embers long distances. By constantly removing ‘ladder fuels,’ fires will burn cooler, with less intensity, giving fire crews a better chance to contain them.”

Such knowledge paid off for Woolf when the Witch Creek Fire roared through Ramona in 2007.

“We utilized our goats to clear and remove brush and create an organic fire break which saved our home and ranch,” Woolf said

He went full-time with his goats at the end of 2010.

A typical work crew on a job consists of 60-70 goats.

“All my goats are out on jobs right now,” said Woolf. “We’ve experienced strong interest. We’re fully booked through the end of September.”

An average-sized goat crew can clear an acre in five to seven days, Woolf said. He fences off a worksite in five-acre increments. He uses a solar-powered electrified fence with a non-lethal charge to keep predators out and goats in.

Woolf checks on each site every day. Constant, on-site security is provided by Anatolian Shepherd dogs or llamas.

“Llamas bond with goats, like a big brother,” said Woolf. The llamas are very effective at keeping away predators such as coyotes and bobcats. Even mountain lions avoid llamas, Woolf said.

A crew of 70 goats has recently been working 10 acres at the base of the Helix Water District’s Chet Harris Dam in Lakeside.

Clearing the area around the dam’s Harold Ball Pump station was the first phase of the project, according to Katherine Breece, Public Affairs Manager for the district. The second phase will employ 150 to 200 goats to clear the area going up the face of the dam and the steep hills leading up to the R.M. Levy Water Treatment Plant.

“This area was burned during the 2003 Cedar Fire,” Breece said, “forcing plant staff to fight the flames as they threatened the facilities.”

The second phase is postponed until August to protect sensitive habitat, Breece said.

“The hillsides can’t be done right now due to some nesting birds.”

“We’re very pleased with the results so far,” said Breece. “It’s been right on schedule.”

In addition to providing fire protection and environmentally friendly mowing services, Breece saluted the project for “reducing the district’s carbon footprint by eliminating most of the use of gasoline powered, two-stroke engine weed cutters. It also eliminates the gasoline consumption from trucking and hauling debris to a landfill from this large area.”

She cited the cost savings to Helix ratepayers—“clearing 10 acres for about the same amount that four acres would cost using commercial weed abatement.”

Another important factor for the second phase is that the goats will be “munching on steeply inclining terrain that would otherwise be considered difficult, and perhaps even dangerous, to be mowed with mechanical hand-held weed cutters,” Breece said.

The favorable reaction from the water district is typical of Hire-A-Goat’s customers, Woolf said.

“There’s something about goats,” said Woolf, speaking both of the practical work they do as well as their visual appeal. “People are so overwhelmed, so pleased, it makes the business worthwhile. It’s very fulfilling work.”

Alan Stuart July 21, 2011 at 03:54 PM
great article! I love goats :)
Donna S Rindskopf July 28, 2011 at 07:33 AM
I would like to know if anyone knows if the use of goats to clear free( green) space is allowed legally? We would love to do this but afraid of fines if this is not allowed legally. We lost our home in the 2007 fires and would like to keep the brush down before it gets out of control again. I find it aggravating that we aren't allowed to maintain this free space but the county, state or whoever is supposed to does NOTHING. Instead people lose everything they own and love.
Motivated Santee Citizen July 28, 2011 at 08:39 PM
Alan, You should work at the zoo. I am serious. I think you would be good at it. I am remembering the video of you addressing the city council about the chickens and your sincerity and gentleness concerning the animals. Oh yeah, run for Mayor and I will vote for you.

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