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    Four-legged Firefighters | Spring 2013 Out Here Magazine

    Goats grazing on brush - Tractor Supply Co.
    Goats can be an inexpensive, all-natural way to create firebreaks by browsing away flammable brush that allows flames to spread.

    Goats take a bite out of fire danger

    By David Frey

    Photography by iStock

    As a wildfire raged across the scrub-covered Utah landscape, putting a stop to it came down to a battle between two teams of firefighters. One was a top-notch squad of wildland firefighters known as hotshots, specially trained to hike into nasty mountain terrain and prevent the most dangerous wildfires from spreading. The other was a bunch of unruly goats.

    The goats won.

    The hotshots had used chainsaws to cut away big brush, but the fire burned right through their fire break and kept on going. The goats had munched the leaves of the brush, nibbled down the branches and pounded the debris on the ground to a non-flammable pulp. When the wall of flames arrived at the goats' firebreak, the fire sputtered to a halt.

    "It was like Christmas for me," says Kathy Voth. She knew the goats were up to the task. An official with the Bureau of Land Management, Voth had been experimenting with goats as firefighters on the landscape around Camp Williams, a National Guard training facility south of Salt Lake City.

    It was part of a seven-year study with the University of Utah. She had been using computer models to predict wildfire behavior at the camp. When an actual fire erupted on the oak scrub-covered hills, it put her firefighting goats to the test and proved her suspicions: goats can be an inexpensive, all-natural way to create firebreaks to keep homes safe.

    Landowners in fire-prone areas know the drill. The best way to keep a house safe from wildfire is by removing the flammable brush that allows the flames to spread.

    Landowners in fire-prone areas know the drill. The best way to keep a house safe from wildfire is by removing the flammable brush that allows the flames to spread. Just a few feet of fire line can make the difference between a house burning to the ground or emerging unscathed.

    Just a few feet of fire line can make the difference between a house burning to the ground or emerging unscathed.

    Often, landowners bring out chainsaws and bulldozers to cut away the dangerous vegetation. That's fine, Voth says, but it can be pricey, and the result often is an unsightly bare scar across an otherwise beautiful piece of land.

    Goats, and even cows, can do similar work, she says, and leave behind a much prettier landscape for much less money.

    "To me, it makes sense that we use a tool that walks around 24 hours a day," Voth says. "With a little bit of fencing, they'll do the work. It just makes sense."

    Goats and cows aren't as indiscriminate as bulldozers. They don't eliminate all the vegetation, but they do reshape it.

    After three or so years of grazing, they leave "park-like stands" of brush, Voth says, a natural mosaic with islands of shrubs set amid open spaces. The result is an attractive firebreak that makes for safer properties - and better wildlife habitat.

    It also makes for safer firefighters.

    Voth was a spokeswoman for the BLM when the 1994 Storm King Mountain fire struck near Glenwood Springs, Colo., killing 14 firefighters sent to protect homes from flames.

    After the fire, Voth decided to find ways to make fires less dangerous for the people who fight them. Making homes safer, she realized, would make firefighters safer, too.

    David Frey lived near Glenwood Springs, Colo., at the time of the Storm King fire and reported it for news organizations.