More than 320 goats are happily working on a steep slope to reduce the fire risk in a neighborhood that was consumed by a wildfire four years ago.
WENATCHEE — There are no lunch breaks for this hardworking herd. But really, they’re always on lunch break, says Chelan County Fire District 1 Chief Brian Brett. And these Spanish Boer goats will do double shifts, eating 15 to 16 hours a day. They’re munching through Russian thistle, Himalayan blackberry, blue bunch wheatgrass, knapweed, wild rose and even cheat grasses on a steep 5-acre slope in the Broadview neighborhood in West Wenatchee.The terrain, with an incline of 35 to 50 degrees, is not accessible to machinery and considered too labor intensive to bring in human crews. So Billy’s Goats, belonging to Billy Porter from Ephrata, were brought in. Over about a week 320 goats, give or take, are reducing the fire hazard and creating a defensible zone downslope in the gully between large, expensive homes and the Sage Hills. Four years ago, 28 homes burned in this neighborhood. Wind-driven embers also set three warehouses afire.“What they (the goats) don’t eat they’ll beat down, and dirt doesn’t burn too well,” says herder Todd Waits. The main risk to the goats is cougars. But the herd is protected by a movable electric fence that packs a punch — a pulsing 8,000 to 10,000 volts — along with a Maremma-Pyrenees-mix guard dog named Nanny, and Waits. The idea for this pilot program of fire protection came from the fire district’s Hillary Heard, who said, “Why not use goats?” Porter describes his herd as “curious, cantankerous, athletic and very personal.” They’re not pets. They’re not going to kiss you. They’re not unfriendly, just cautious. Unlike cows that stand in one place and graze, the goats eat on the move. Neighbors had concerns over noise and smell. But Brett says there have been “no negatives.” The cost to create this defensible zone is about $1,600 per acre, paid for by a grant from FEMA.The fire district is hoping to use this approach in other parts of its 70-square-mile coverage area. The biggest fire threat is where there used to be orchards and now are developments, many in canyons, on the western edge of the city. “We’re trying to be proactive in reducing risk,” Brett says. And the goats are getting high marks. “We’re ecstatic.” The goats’ mowing careers are usually about 10 years. When finished with vegetation management, they’ll move on to someone’s table. Herder Waits was studying to be in culinary arts and still has a goal of “someday having my own farm-to-table restaurant.” But, the kitchen means 12-hour days, and he just wanted some alone time. Being outdoors with 300-plus goats is refreshing for Waits. “The best thing is being alone in good company.”