PASO ROBLES, Calif. — The city of Paso Robles is turning hungry animals loose in the Salinas Riverbed to reduce the risk of wildfire.
Goats will be grazing in the riverbed for the next month or so. They're starting from the north and going south, clearing two to three acres a day.
On Tuesday, there were upwards of 100 goats munching away at the overgrown, fire-ready grasses in the fire-prone hot spot of the Salinas Riverbed.
"They really like thistle, and that's one of the primary things they'll eat first," said Battalion Chief Jay Enns with the Paso Robles Fire, and Emergency Services.
The herd is also chewing through poison hemlock and other weeds, creating fuel breaks through which wildfires are less likely to burn.
The city got the go-ahead to use the grazing goats from the Regional Water Board and Fish and Wildlife to cover dozens of acres.
"This year, we're starting with 85, and then once the rest of our permits are finalized, hopefully, in the next 90 days, we will be able to come down here and do some mowing and masticating and some handwork," said Chief Jonathan Stornetta of the Paso Robles Fire and Emergency Services.
While 220 acres of brush were mitigated in some form last year, the farm animals were used then to treat roughly 10 of those acres.
"We had a fire start just under the Niblick Bridge in the treated area, and it wasn't able to spread in the lighter fuels because there was none available for them," Enns said.
In recent years, the city has seen an uptick in riverbed fires, with 43 fires in 2017 and 129 fires in 2019 and 2020.
"We're finding that the majority of our fires are human-caused," Stornetta said. "We have a large homeless population that lives in the riverbed. Recent estimates are greater than 200."
In the first four months of this year, the city had 37 riverbed fires, with the most recent human-caused fire on Monday.
But some people might be wondering, why goats?
"The goats just don't have as much environmental impact as the other methods do, so that's the real reason," Stornetta said.
Besides having a tiny footprint, they're efficient.
More and more goats and even sheep will be added to the mix as the firebreaks open up more.
"To keep the fires from getting larger than we want them to be at this time," Stornetta said.
The cost of the goat project is $45,000, and it's being paid for with grants from the Fire Safe Council.
The city says overall mitigation efforts will cost about $300,000 this year compared to about $400,000 last year.
Alexa Bertola at KSBY first reported this story.