Want to fight fires? Use goats

High fire season kicked off in Santa Barbara this week. Plants that flourished during this winter’s rains are already drying out and turning into kindling. More than six small wildfires have broken out in the county this month alone – the largest a 190-acre blaze near New Cuyama.

Fennel and Mustard plants. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

On a hill above Parma Park near Mission Canyon in Santa Barbara, about 70 goats are doing their part by eating dried grasses and plants like mustard, fennel and thistle.

“It’s a win win,” said Ian Newsam, who owns the goats, plus about 800 more currently spread out in the foothills of Montecito, Ventura County and the outskirts of Lompoc. “They get to eat. And we don’t let them know that they’re actually doing work.”

Newsam and his wife, Lorraine Argo, started a business called Brush Goats for Hire 11 years ago. Their goats are hired to get rid of invasive species like mustard and fennel and clear brush in areas susceptible to wildfires.

Wildland specialist Anne Marx saw firsthand how goats helped save the Saint Mary Seminary when two fires whipped through Mission Canyon: The Tea Fire in 2008 and the Jesusita fire in 2009.

“Ian brought the goats in and rotated the goats around that site, and during the fires, we saw those structures survive,” she said. “We saw a reduction in the intensity of heat in those areas.”

It’s not that the goats stop the fires. They still move through, just not with the same height or force.

“Having that less intense fire reduces the potential for structure loss and increases the ability for firefighters to actually go in and fight the fire. If it’s less intense, you can get people in safer.”

Goats graze on a dry, grassy hillside in Santa Barbara’s Parma Park. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Goats work well because they eat a lot, can handle the heat, and their livers can process a lot of toxins found in certain plants like hemlock and deadly nightshade.

Plus, Marx says goats are a calmer alternative to how brush is typically cleared.

“When you do vegetation management, it’s noisy,” she said. “You’re out there with chainsaws, chippers and a crew. When the goats are out there, it’s just quiet.”

According to Kathy Frye from the Parks and Rec Department, goats can often get more done than humans can.

“The goats are there all day. Early morning, late at night, they don’t leave,” she said.

They can also tackle challenging places, like super-steep slopes, heavy brush and patches full of poison oak, which is actually full of protein for goats.

“Anytime that that vegetation is left there, it just adds to the vegetative fuel load. So that’s three acres of vegetation that’s gone now,” said Frye.

Ian Newsam and his goats. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Newsom’s service costs landowners an average of $2,000 per acre. The goats typically munch for a couple weeks, then move to a new plot of land.

“It’s like having 900 bosses breathing down your neck,” he says, as his goats line up at the edge of the fence, munching on grass and staring at him.

“They’re telling me they want to move on. There’s still plenty here, but they’re like kids. They’ll eat the candy first. They’ll do four or five circles looking for that one leaf that they love, and then as they progress down, they start getting kind of grumpy.”

An Anatolian Shepherd Dog named Thor guards the goats from predators like coyotes. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Newsam is out in the fields every day, building and breaking down fences, moving his goats from property to property making sure they stay healthy and full. Plus, he has to be ready to evacuate them at any time in case a fire breaks out.