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Fire Mitigation

Natural Wildfire in California
Ecological Fuel Load Reduction with grazing animals can take place at any time of the year, even during the rainy season.  Planned grazing is also an effective way to manage the regrowth of brush and scrub after fire has moved through an area.  Goats will remove heavy fuel loads in areas where brush is too thick to penetrate.  Managed Intensive Grazing can reduce the volume, thickness, height, and breadth of brush enclosements, returning areas to a living greenbelt.

Living System’s managed grazing replicates the positive effects of natural wildfire.  The herds move slowly through wildland, forest, rangeland and urban interface zones, carving their way through dangerous brush and undergrowth.  Managed grazing breaks the continuity of flammable cover, providing natural firebreaks and sustainable fire protection. 

Managed Grazing:
  • Creates Fire Breaks

  • Reduces Fuel Loads

  • Increases Spatial Distance Between Shrubs and Trees

  • Prunes Tree Ladder Fuels up to Six Feet off the Ground
Wildfire in California

 A  Goat Grazing Primer by Jared A. Lewis

Fire in interface zones has the highest potential for catastrophic effects.  There are a variety of tools and techniques that are available to mitigate wildfire in the Wildland-Urban interface.  What’s more, in these interface zones fire suppression becomes increasingly more difficult not only because fire fighters have to contend with the fire, but also must contend  with the fact that homeowners or city officials may have done little in the way of providing a defensible space near and around homes and structures, so that fire fighters can at the least have some chance at saving or diverting a fast moving wildfire.

So how do goats fight fire?

In order to understand how goats impact the fire environment it is important to understand the conditions that allow fire to spread quickly and to burn for long periods of time at intense heats.

The primary factor which effects the intensity of heat, flame height, and the ability for fire to spread and increase is the fuel that the fire must consume to maintain itself.  These fuels include most types of vegetation, including trees, shrubs, common weeds and grasses. We distinguish between the different types of fuels by their respective reactivity to fire and by their potential to feed and spread fire. Light fuels such as grasses and weeds provide a medium for fire to spread quickly, especially in areas where these light fuels have accumulated and formed dense stands of dry and combustible material. Heavy fuels such as trees and shrubs, once ignited are difficult to control, will release toxic fumes into the air (from oils such as the urishol in poison oak) and burn longer and hotter than grass fires.

With the understanding of the fuels which give energy and momentum to fire, we can begin to look at how a goat can effectively lessen the potential for, as well as the destructive capacity of, fire.  Goats, unlike other ruminant grazing animals (both wild and domestic), are non-selective eaters.

Goats can utilize a variety of forages including the light and heavy fuels discussed above.  Goats are also active and explorative eaters, often climbing trees in pursuit of food and nutrition.  This propensity towards variety coupled with an uncanny ability to consume unlikely feedstuffs such as low lying branches, small trees, grasses, weeds, chapparal, shrubs and a panoply of fire-hazardous exotic and invasive species, creates the unlikely but none the less perfectly suited fire fighting tool in the goat.

As a goat moves through a fire prone area it will begin to target the light fuels while browsing on the branches of trees and shrubs as high as it can reach (up to approximately five feet).  This vegetation is the ladder fuel, the vegetation which allows fire to spread upwards from ground, to trees, to homes.  Slowly but efficiently the goat will increase the distance between combustible vegetative materials.

Increasing the spatial distance between plants exponentially inhibits the speed at which a fire can spread, the heat and intensity of that fire, and its ability to prolong itself.   Furthermore, trees which have effectively been pruned by the goat are unlikely to crown.  A crown fire - that is, a fire which has spread to the top of the tree - is extremely difficult to suppress and allows for other trees to crown from the top down.  These types of fires are catastrophic and pose a particular risk to fire fighters on the ground.

In many ways, a goat’s impact on its environment is similar to the low intensity fires which burned cyclically and regularly before modern high-density urbanization.   These low intensity fires maintained a healthy balance and were effective in maintaining overgrown brush and grasses, while at the same time releasing nutrients back into the soil.  Release of these nutrients relies on decomposition and the fire cycle and are otherwise left untapped and unavailable to emerging and existing vegetation.  Fire was once an integral part of the healthy ecosystem, providing the necessary components for regeneration and self-maintenance.  Today, it is no longer possible or responsible to allow fire in the Wildland-Urban nterface to take its own course.   Modern wildland fires are unnatural and often catastrophic, and no longer serve as the regenerative element of our pre-urban past.  We are now compelled by necessity and our own self-preservation instinct to find ecological and viable alternatives to fire management that mitigate catastrophic events and promote ecosystem health, while maintaining the viability of our homes and communites.

Nature gives miraculous insight into our problems and more often that not provides the solution to many challenges that human rationale is unable or unprepared to solve.  Observation of the natural world's tendency towards equilibrium, managing its whole through its various and disparate parts, allows for solutions to be found that are inherent within the natural system.  More and more, science, and thereby society, is discovering the perfection of nature in all its intricacies and interdependent systems.  Fire was once revered and worshiped for its positive nature: providing warmth; used in agriculture or metallurgy; and a multitude of other purposes.  In our post-modern world fire is no longer revered, but feared, and rightly so.  It is incumbent on us to protect and maintain our environment and to find the equilibrium that has long since been obscured through unthoughtful and haphazard attempts to suppress fire.  Modern fire suppression activities must address the inevitability of ecological disaster after high intensity catastrophic wildfire, acknowlege the repercussions of non-managemnent, and begin the discourse about responsible and ecological management of the Wildland-Urban interface.

Through the observation of our environment we find one solution to our fuel and fire management dilemma.  We understand the mechanisms that mother nature employs to maintain a homeostatic fire environment.   These mechanisms include chemical, mechanical, and meteorogical elements.   Some of these can be recreated and simulated through human activity or through the introduction of grazing and animal impact into interface zones.  Our model of Managed Grazing / Browsing for fire suppression and wildland maintenance is based on the modality in which grazing activity reduces potentiality for fire in the pristine environments which grazing animals have occupied for countless eons. In fact, grazing has always been and continues to be an integtral component of the fire system.  It is through animal impact, animal grazing and browsing activity, that fuel loads were kept in check.  The carrying capacity for a herd of animals - the amount of food available and the type and relative amount of utilizable vegetation for animal and ecosystem - are invariably connected to the location, duration, intensity and frequency of fire in the wildland.  Natural grazing and fire systems, which native plants and animals rely heavily upon and have in fact adapted certain mechanisms of recovery from, have been altered or disallowed in the current state of our ecosystem, which includes our human ecosystem, cities, governments and municipalities.   These systems are essential and fundamental to the program of mother nature.  Grazing and fire activity are meta-programs which continually work on energy, mineral, soil, and many other overarching biological levels.  Without these components and their constituent effects, balance, symmetry and ecostasisity dissolve: a chain reaction of predictable ecological and biological events ensue which ultimately nullify the natural systems ability to maintain itself in a healthy state.  And, because we are also part of this delicate but resilient system - our towns, cities and infrastructures inhabit and share the same space and abide by the same laws of nature as do our plant and animal neighbors - we too are effected by this imbalance.  The complexity of our contemporary fire environment is compounded by economic and political realities which continually affect and alter our ability to moderate and participate in the mitigation of wildfire on many levels.  Even on a local level it is often difficult to find adequate, affordable and sustainable techniques and methods to protect our homes, families, communities and environments from fire.   We have discovered the link between ecology and fire and science has solidly established the axiom that we can not achieve fire safety without ecological viability, which includes fire resistant native vegetation, proper cycling of dry, dead and decaying matter, as well as the reintroduction or continuation of grazing for fuel management which promotes these constituent prerequisites by its very nature.   (pictures courtesy of www.wildlandfire.com)