Fire-fighting goats retired from service

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Illustration by Dina Arakcheyeva/The Pioneer

Michele Dennis

Michele Dennis,
Contributor

For 21 years, the Oakland Fire Department has employed roughly 3,500 goats and brought them to the Oakland Hills to eat grasses and shrubs, which serve as kindling during dry fire seasons. The goats recently returned to their ranch in Dixon, California, after finishing up their latest season as fire control specialists.

The goat grazing program was established under the OFD’s vegetation management division after the devastating 1991 Oakland hills inferno that reduced 3.5 square miles of the Oakland Hills to ash on Oct. 21 of that year. The fire killed 25 people and incinerated nearly 3,300 homes and apartments. Many new protocols — new fire prevention measures and vegetation management — were put into place over the course of three years in the aftermath of the fire.

But it is unclear whether the city’s vegetation management program will be continued past next spring. In 2004, Oakland voters passed a special tax assessment that provided $1.7 million a year for 10 years to continue the fire prevention services that include the goat program. But in 2014, a ballot measure that would’ve added an extra $12 per year, per property, to continue those vegetation management services was narrowly defeated. The program’s funds will be discontinued as of next spring.

“Goats and the entire weed abatement plan are a key component to the city of Oakland’s fire protection service,” said Vince Crudele, manager of the vegetation management dept. of the Oakland Fire Department. “But now that the assessment funding is ending, we’ll have to go to the city general funds and ask for money and there are many others who have equal priority for that.”

Crudele’s division currently handles a 16.5 square-mile area. He’s not sure what will happen next year. “Those funds were critical for us,” he said. “We don’t have the access to the same emergency funds that the police have.”

Today much of the area that burned in 1991 has been rebuilt with high-end, two and three story homes and once again much of it is densely vegetated. The Oakland Hills contain many neighborhoods with narrow two-lane roads that wind around houses surrounded by trees and thick vegetation.

In areas like these, goats are effective in removing excess shrubs and grasses where the terrain between the homes is not maintained, according to Martin Matarrese, a former Parkland Resources supervisor with the city of Oakland, who now is the field supervisor for Eco-Systems Inc., the company that maintains the goat contract with the city. For maximum effectiveness, goats need to be brought into an area on an annual basis to strip the bark on invasive perennials, and to eat the newly germinated plants before they take hold, according to Matarrese.

“People take it for granted that the Oakland Fire Department’s fire prevention plan and the goat program will be continued as they have for the past 20 plus years, but as a business we need to plan ahead to schedule our goats to come next year,” Matarrese said. “We can’t just wait until April to see if we get a commitment.”

The goats come from April to October. Each herd is tended by a full-time shepherd and at least two dogs who are with them 24/7. They are moved 10 to 15 times during the year to graze areas identified as high risk, like the hills surrounding the Oakland Zoo, and the hilly area over Caldecott Tunnel.

While many homeowners appreciate having the service, some do not take responsibility for their own property. Some residents push back or refuse to clear the brush around their homes to create what firefighters call “defensible space,” because they think it detracts from their privacy or makes their home look bare, according to Crudele.

“If there is a large fire, we will likely not be able to save their homes, and it puts other properties in danger,” Crudele said. “A large fire can send burning cinders three miles. It all happens so quickly.”

The 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm wreaked the majority of its destruction in a 24-hour period. And although the Oakland Hills Fire is still considered the worst urban fire in California’s history, many seem to have forgotten what happened in 1991, according to local officials.

Sue Piper lost her home in the 1991 fire and is now the chair for the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, which develops and advocates for fire prevention plans that include goat grazing, roadside clearance, tree chipping and grants for neighborhoods to have additional brush clearing and chipping work done.

According to Piper, the WPAD had been waiting for about ten years to get additional money to address fire-prone areas, like those on either side of the Caldecott Tunnel entrance. “Many people new to the area or too young to remember, don’t understand how perilous it can be to live in a heavily wooded area,” Piper said.

Work is underway to reinstate funding by some other means. The WPAD and a panel of fire management scientists and experts are drafting a new comprehensive vegetation management report that will be ready by the end of 2018, according to Piper.

“We dodged a bullet this year,” Crudele said. “We could see another fire on the scale of 1991 or worse.” By removing excess dry growth the vegetation control program has helped bring several smaller fires this year under control. A rainy winter could encourage the growth of more weeds this coming year, he said.