SAN DIEGO – When it comes to preventing brush fires, a charming brown-and-cream goat named Tim Buck might give Smokey the Bear a run for his money.
With fire season under way, residents of a San Diego neighborhood devastated by the 2003 Cedar Fire have commissioned Tim and 350 of his friends to eat their way through chaparral encroaching on newly rebuilt homes.
"We're once burned and twice shy," said Karen Reimus, who lost her home in the Cedar Fire. "Lightning does sometimes strike twice."
Fire authorities say this fire season could be a bad one in Southern California, with an excess of growth from a wet 2005 dried out by a relatively rain-free winter this year. Earlier this month, a fire apparently set by two young boys raced through a San Diego canyon, prompting precautionary evacuations in a residential neighborhood, though no structures were burned. Other fires forced evacuations in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.
Goats are being used more often in California to thin undergrowth in areas where controlled burns are too risky or terrain is too difficult for humans to navigate, according to Tom Hoffman, chief of fire prevention for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
San Diego was widely faulted as unprepared and under-equipped to handle a blaze the magnitude of the Cedar Fire. Many — including the former fire chief, who resigned last month out of frustration with budget constraints for fire prevention and planning — agree not much has changed in the last three years.
San Diego has 23 neighborhoods scattered through its canyons and hillsides that are deemed high risk for wildfires, said Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. But there are just six employees available to monitor compliance with a new rule requiring that homes in those areas have a 100-foot buffer from undergrowth.
"You can't wait for a government agency or a private entity to take care of it when it's right behind you," Reimus said.
Oakland and Laguna Beach, both ravaged by fires in the 1990s, have used goats for years. The animals also have been put to work in Utah and Arizona, where fire officials credited them with helping limit blazes that scarred the state last month.
Goats relish their jobs; they need no prodding to eat their way through tasty underbrush. All they require is water, supervision and portable fencing to keep them under control.
Reimus and her neighbors in Whispering Ridge, a development built on a woodsy canyon rim neighboring the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, raised about $13,000 to hire a local company to keep the goats grazing on city-owned land behind their homes for about two weeks. The $750-per-acre cost is about one-fifth that of a human crew.
A block party — complete with balloons, muffins, and handmade "Goat X-ing" signs — accompanied the goats' recent arrival. Their trek across a cul-de-sac was interrupted by stops to sample ice plant lining the sidewalk.
Herders and dogs maneuvered the goats between two houses onto a hillside covered with brush, some tender young saplings, and the coal-black stubs of trees still left standing after the Cedar inferno, which scorched 273,000 acres and destroyed 2,820 buildings, including 312 homes in the pricey area around Whispering Ridge.
Tim and the others promptly set about enjoying a sunny brunch al fresco, delicately gorging themselves on the plant matter fire officials describe as "accumulated ground fuel."
The goats are locals, hired from a ranch just southeast of San Diego. Ranch manager Johnny Gonzales said his herd is getting more fire prevention work than ever.
"All they want to do is eat, so it works out to everyone's advantage," said Gonzales, whose business is appropriately named Environmental Land Management Goats.
Hiring the goats was the brainchild of Reimus and Jerry Mitchell, a retired Navy pilot who nearly lost his home in the 2003 fires. Mitchell founded the Fire Safe Council — a sort of Neighborhood Watch program for fires — in the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego, and helped Reimus set up an offshoot group.
"The fire chief said all the houses in my area would have been a write-off if the fire had made it another 150 feet over the canyon," Mitchell said. "So I decided that I could do something other than play golf for a while, and started organizing."