As the morning marine layer gave way to another sunny late-spring afternoon, dozens of goats munched their way across a hillside at the edge of a suburban Hayward neighborhood.
Blades of wild oat grass, already faded from green to pale yellow, shot up past the goats’ spotted bellies. Thistles reached above their heads.
The herd from the grazing company Goats R Us was getting a taste of a trend that has been clear this spring for gardeners, hikers and anyone who has taken note of an overgrown freeway embankment or median strip. In the wake of a wet winter that drenched California, grasses and other vegetation have been growing like gangbusters.
Once all of that vegetation cures in the summer sun, it could turn into abundant fuel for a wildfire — which means thousands of goats who graze hillsides in Berkeley, Oakland and beyond as four-legged partners in vegetation management have a lot of work to do this year.
“Each job is taking us considerably longer because the vegetation is so dense,” said Terri Oyarzun, the owner of Goats R Us. “We’re coaching them — we’re cheering for them: ‘Eat! Eat! Eat!”
She and other grazers estimated it could take their goats 50% longer to cover some properties compared to last year, when California’s drought meant there was less grass and brush to chew through.
“These aren’t mowers, they just eat — and we can’t make them eat, they eat on their schedule,” said Mike Canaday of Living Systems Land Management, which grazes from the Bay Area to Southern California. “It’s going to be a good year to be a goat.”
Grazing companies have become increasingly popular as a strategy to protect neighborhoods and businesses that are at risk from wildfire. They clear the grasses and brush where flames most easily ignite and spread, and they can reach hilly areas that are often difficult for a human landscaping crew to access.
Despite the extra vegetation this year, Oyarzun said Orinda-based Goats R Us won’t call in reinforcements for its 10,000 goats the way a department store might hire extra workers for the holidays. That’s because the company keeps animals for their entire lives, she said, meaning it would need to have the capacity to feed and take care of them during the off-season or in drier years when there’s less grass to go around.
Grazing company officials also cited a state labor law that will soon require much higher pay for goat herders, which has prompted some firms to sell off goats or downsize their human workforce.
Andree Soares, owner of Starr Creek Land Stewards, said her company has taken on some new clients this year, but had to turn others away after its schedule for the six-month grazing season filled up.
All of the extra vegetation this spring, Soares said, “brings a sense of urgency for the people who are living with that around them.”
Overall, big water years like the one we just experienced tend to bring good news from a wildfire perspective: an analysis by the San Jose Mercury News found that rainier winters have generally been followed by fire seasons in which fewer acres burned across California, while bad fire years came after winters with lower rainfall totals. That’s because snow in the Sierra Nevada and rain at lower elevations mean the landscape stays wetter for longer, effectively shortening the season for severe wildfires.
Still, a wet winter is no a guarantee of a mild fire year — the deadly blazes that devastated parts of the North Bay in 2017, for example, came in the wake of drought-busting rains the previous winter.
East Bay Regional Park District Fire Chief Aileen Theile said she expects this year’s cold and wet winter will help keep a lid on fire danger for a time, though a lot will also depend on what kind of weather Northern California experiences come autumn. A late start to the next rainy season or rounds of dry off-shore winds, which fuel the most extreme fire danger, could change everything.
“We should have a lower risk of wildfire for the majority of the summer while things are drying out,” Theile said. But, she added, “It’s the other variables that are so important.”
That risk means landowners have no choice but to do battle with all of their excess vegetation.
For the park district that means pressing ahead with a variety of vegetation management strategies, such as pruning trees, removing brush and calling in Goats R Us to graze its land.
The company’s goats also work on the shores of East Bay Municipal Utility District reservoirs and at other properties owned by the utility — which cheered the rains last winter while they brought relief from the drought — as part of its vegetation management strategy.
“Life is never simple, is it?” said Andrea Pook, a spokesperson for the utility.
“We’re very grateful for the rains we’ve had,” Pook added, “but certainly want to gear up and make sure that we’re ready for fire season.”