Goats are the latest weapons in the war against wildfire

(CNN)"We are living in a tinderbox," says Reinette Senum.

Senum is the vice mayor of Nevada City. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, 147 miles northeast of San Francisco, the town's streets are lined with characterful wooden houses that date back to the late 19th century.
Nevada City's historic downtown.
Senum is terrified that Nevada City -- home to 3,100 people -- will go up in flames.
    Wildfires are a growing problem in California -- 15 of the 20 largest fires since 1932 have taken place in the last 20 years. As climate change makes California's weather ever hotter and drier, this trend is set to continue.
    According to the US National Climate Assessment, climate change is responsible for half of the forestland burned by wildfire in western states since the mid 1980s, and burned areas in southwest California could double by 2050.
    Nevada City is especially vulnerable because it is a patchwork of urban streets and forests -- with no separation between the two. Senum says that the 450 acres of wild land within the city limits are "choked" with overgrown -- and highly combustible -- vegetation.
    Nevada City sits in a beautiful -- but flammable -- landscape.
    Senum had been investigating ways to reduce the town's fire risk for years but Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in northern California, and incinerated the town of Paradise last November, spurred her efforts. Paradise is less than 80 miles from Nevada City and the tragedy there was a "call to action," says Senum.
    Obtaining government grants is a slow process, so last December Senum launched a crowdfunding campaign -- Goat Fund Me.
    Funds will be used to rent herds of goats to chomp down vegetation and create firebreaks that prevent wildfires jumping from trees and plants to homes and businesses.
    A search and rescue crew member searches for human remains at a mobile home park in Paradise which was destroyed on November 21, 2018.

    A goat's work is never done

    Using goats to help prevent wildfire is a growing trend across California and other western states in the US.
    Johnny Gonzales runs Environmental Land Management which operates a herd of 1,200 goats that work in cities throughout southern California. He says interest in goats is at an all-time high. Other goat rental companies include Goats R Us, Rent a Goat and Goats on the Go.
    Environmental Land Management's goats hard at work around southern California.
    Fortunately, goats are tireless in their appetites. They can eat 8 to 10 lbs of food a day -- up to about 9% of their body weight, says Gonzales.
    His goats are taken to work in stock trucks and trailers, having been 'acclimated' to the urban environment so that the din of honking car horns and wailing police sirens does not frighten them.
    Contained by low voltage electric fences, the goats are accompanied by a human herder and guardian dogs which protect them from predators including coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions.
    Great Pyrenees guardian dogs protect grazing goats from predators.
    One of Gonzales' clients is Anaheim Fire and Rescue. Their Public Information Officer, Daron Wyatt, says goats have been deployed for about three years in areas where wild land encroaches on the urban environment, with great success.
    "They're very effective and it's a great method of clearing the vegetation in an environmentally friendly way," he says.
    The goats gobble tall grasses, shrubs, bushes and small trees. Nimble and hardy, they can work on steep, rocky terrain that's difficult for humans to navigate, says Wyatt.
    Johnny Gonzales' goats at work in Lemon Grove, near San Diego.
    The goats do have some human assistance though -- crews follow them, where possible, and use chainsaws and pruning shears to cut down the thicker trunks and branches that the goats can't chew through.

    Fueling the fire

    Lynn Huntsinger, professor of range ecology and management at the University of California, Berkeley, says that California has seen an increase in "fuel" -- the term fire experts use to describe "dead plants."
    Huntsinger, who used to keep goats in the backyard of her Bay Area home, says the fire problem has its roots in history.
    In the past, Native Americans lit fires to control the vegetation, she says. These deliberate burns created a landscape of open grasslands, so wildfires were smaller and less frequent.