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When the El Nino rains fell last winter in California, thick and tall grass grew in the once-parched land, but now that those rains have passed, the grass turned into dry fuel for what could be the start of another tough fire season.
While the late summer and early fall is typically the period with the highest risk for wildfires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire reports the number of acres of scorched land on the properties under its jurisdiction is already up 60 percent from a year ago.
To lessen the threat posed by the brittle underbrush and those thick clumps of grass, landowners and the state are literally removing it bite by bite. Hungry animals are increasingly replacing hand crews, tractors and mechanized weed mowers.
"They just do such a great job," said Cal Fire Capt. Lucas Spelman. "It's a more eco-friendly kind of way to clean up vegetation, a lot less noise and those goats allow you to get into areas where mechanized equipment has a hard time getting in there."
The targeted grazing also is seen as safer, particularly in the hot and dry summer months.
"In the dry grass, tractors and mowers with metal can hit a rock and spark wildfires or tractor-trailer vehicle exhausts can emit dangerous sparks that ignite," Spelman said.
A good portion of California remains in a drought, and the contract grazing companies are busier this year due to the increased fire risk. The U.S. Drought Monitor last Thursday showed more than 83 percent of the Golden State remains in drought and almost 60 percent is rated in a "severe drought."
"We're doing almost triple the numbers of last year," said goat rancher Tony Gonzalez, owner of Gonzalez Brush Busters in Lower Lake, California. "Every single person that calls me is afraid of fires."
Gonzalez said about three-fourths of the jobs he's getting are "close to where a fire happened within the past two years." The rancher, who has about 300 goats, credits them for saving his house during a major wildfire last year.
"Thanks to the goats, we cleaned up our place at the beginning of the year and our house didn't burn down," he said. "The Valley Fire came within 150 feet of my house when it was in Lower Lake."
The two most destructive wildfires in California last year — the Valley and Butte fires — burned in excess of 145,000 acres, claimed six lives and destroyed more than 2,800 homes and other structures in Northern California. The Valley Fire, among the costliest ever wildfire in the state's history, was 100 miles north of San Francisco in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties.
So far in 2016, more than 3,100 fires have burned around 120,400 acres of combined state and federal lands in California as of July 9, according to Cal Fire. On state lands alone, the agency reported 30,368 acres burned in the year-to-date period compared with 18,555 acres in the period last year.
In late June, a fire that started in the town of Lake Isabella burned around 45,000 acres, destroyed more than 250 homes and killed at least two people. Known as the Erskine Fire, the deadly blaze about 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield wasn't fully contained until July 11.
"This year is quite a bit busier — and I think it's because of the wildfires that have happened," said Andree Soares, owner and president of Los Banos, California-based Star Creek Land Stewards, a contract-grazing services company with goats and sheep.
Planned grazing "sort of went away and now people are coming back to it and really loving the benefit of it," Soares said. "People are more eco-conscious, and grazing, simply stated, is nature's way of improving the land."
Soares, who has about 3,600 goats and sheep, said "animals have been doing this (natural grazing) for thousands and thousands of years. It's as old as fire."
Some of the major industries using the contract grazing today include real estate developers clearing land, wine growers looking to reduce brush surrounding vineyards and solar power/energy companies looking to eliminate overgrown brush and fire fuels.
"A lot of the public agencies will contract with sheep or goat ranchers," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "It's a very cost-effective way for public agencies. Private landowners are showing more interest in it as well just because of the various benefits of using sheep and goats to keep some of the brush under control."
Recent public projects using targeted grazing include the Ventura County Fire Department using around 460 goats in May to remove grass below the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Also, a herd of sheep and goats were used for vegetation removal at a number of sites around the San Francisco Bay area.
"April, May and June and early July we're really busy, so that's the time of year when we get the most money," said Mike Canaday, who runs Living Systems Land Management, a brush control services firm in Coalinga, California. "A lot of the required fuel reduction (brush clearance) for public agencies is by July 4."
Canaday, who has about 2,500 goats and 1,500 sheep, said costs for contract grazing can range from $500 to $1,000 an acre. The primary factors determining the price include the location of the project, vegetation, ease of access and time of year.
Many of the contract grazers use trained sheep and goat herders brought to the United States from Peru and other South American countries on what's called the H-2A work visa program. The herders can work on project sites 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and there's also trained guard dogs and border collies to assist.
As for the goats, they can each consume 4 to 10 pounds of vegetation a day and even climb into trees for food. Sheep eat mostly grass so some private landowners or public agencies using grazing services require goats if they have noxious plants or overgrown brush in hilly areas.