Utah Guard Enlists Help From 'A Few Good Goats'
Jason Garn checks on his goats, which the Utah Army National Guard is using to create a firebreak on Camp Williams, near Salt Lake City, Utah. The goats have proven their worth during more than one fire season by consuming brush that would fuel wildfires.

CAMP WILLIAMS, Utah (July 28, 2009) -- When it comes to fighting wildfires, most people immediately think of water or fire retardant dropped from helicopters and other aircraft, or soot-covered firefighters using hoses and foam to battle back towering blazes.

Few people, however, think of goats as a firefighting tool, but goats are exactly what the Utah National Guard is using to lessen the potential of wildfires at this installation near Salt Lake City.

The Utah Guard has enlisted more than 1,200 goats and sheep to consume sagebrush and oak brush before this year's fire season, said Sean Hammond, manager of the Utah Guard's Integrated Training Area. Less brush means less fuel for wildfires, he explained.

But contrary to popular belief, goats won't eat everything.

"There are certain plants that they would just have to be starved to eat," said Doug Johnson, natural resources manager for the Utah Army National Guard. "But they'll eat a lot of our heavy fuels pretty readily, like the sagebrush and the oak brush. And they do a great job dealing with those fields."

The goats were first introduced in 1999 as an experiment in cooperation with Utah State University, Hammond said. Two years later during a massive wildfire that spread through the camp, the goats proved their worth.

"The 'goat firebreak' had only been constructed a very short distance," Hammond said, "but where it was constructed, the fire stopped, even when it jumped roads and other firebreaks."

In 2003, the goats were officially added to Camp Williams' fire prevention plan and were used to construct more firebreaks. The Utah Guard has steadily increased the length of those areas over the past six years, and currently has about 10 miles of goat-cleared firebreaks, Hammond said.

The value of the goats' efforts was proven again in 2006, when another major wildfire broke out on the camp.

"The fire was driven by winds approaching 20 mph into twin, bulldozed firebreaks," Hammond said. "The twin firebreaks held for between 10 and 15 minutes before the fire jumped the lines and raced uphill toward the camp's northern boundary."

At that point, pushed by nearly 40 mph winds, the blaze neared the top of the ridge, when it hit the area cleared by the goats.

"The fire line plowed into the goat firebreak and stopped," Hammond said. "Personnel on the ridge at the time ... remarked that had it not been for the goats, the fire would not have stopped at the ridgeline."

If the fire had not stopped there, Hammond explained, it most likely would have continued on to nearby housing developments.

The goats also have helped to clear Camp Williams of other unwanted items. In 2007, an unexploded artillery shell was found after the goats had cleared an area along the camp's artillery impact area. Suspected to have been fired during training in the mid-1980s, the round sat unnoticed in heavy brush before the goats got to it.

"They eat [just about] everything down to stubble," said Lt. Col. Hank McIntire, the state public affairs officer. "It makes it look like a wasteland. Once the area was cleared off by the goats, the round was easily seen."

A berm was built around the shell for safety, and an explosive ordnance disposal team destroyed the shell with an explosive charge. The wildfires of the previous year had come within 200 meters of the shell, McIntire said.

The goats' success has strengthened ties with those who live near the camp, McIntire added. Plans are under way to increase the number of goat-built firebreaks. A planned extension is to be built along the western edge of the camp, and the Utah State Forestry and Fire Department will pick up the addition's cost, Hammond said.

(Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy serves at the National Guard Bureau.)

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16