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All-You-Can-Eat Fire Safety

A Claremont brush clearing job puts 750 eager volunteers to work.

October 24, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Members of the fire prevention team working Thursday in Claremont were too busy to talk. Their mouths were full.

Others tried to take a break from Thursday's intense heat by lying in shade and sipping water. Two of them even tried to engage in lovemaking. But their bosses, anxiously eyeing smoke from a brush fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, wouldn't stand for it. They snarled, barked and nipped at the heels of the 750 goats, urging the animals to continue their brush clearance.

"Goats are the way to go in this business," said Richard Brown, a self-described fire department brush removal contractor who delivered the goats. Their assignment was to devour the weeds and thick vegetation surrounding the back of Stone Canyon Preserve, a future development of 125 homes at the base of the mountains in Claremont. Two border collies and two Great Pyrenees are also on site to rouse, direct and protect the goats.

"These animals will clear an acre of brush in one day," Brown said, "and there's no workers' compensation required."

The importance of effective brush clearance was reinforced when this week's Reche Canyon fire in Riverside County destroyed four homes, a mobile home and a trailer, with total property damage from the fire totaling $2 million.

Last year, the nearby Williams fire in San Dimas Canyon charred 38,094 acres along with 62 cabins and homes.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department requires 200 feet of clearance between homes and wild, flammable brush such as the brown mustard, laurel sumac and turkey mullein growing above the Claremont site and at the eastern end of the mountains, where the Grand Prix fire in Fontana has charred more than 4,000 acres and forced evacuations in Lytle Creek.

"The oils and resins within this brush that make it so flammable are the same things that allow it to survive in this dry, harsh environment," said county Fire Deputy Thomas Bristow, a fire prevention expert. "The fires, driven by high temperatures and drought, have shown just how dangerous they are if you don't take safety measures. Here, thanks to the goats, this development will have a good buffer."

Instead of using heavy, earth-damaging equipment or hiring six men at a total of $1,700 a day to clear a half-acre of the brush, Stone Canyon Preserve officials, who have long pitched their development as environmentally sensitive, opted to pay more -- an estimated $7,500 a day -- for the goats to spend 30 to 45 days chewing away each 50-acre section of brush. That will allow the developers, whose project is in a high-fire-danger area, to satisfy fire codes and a city landscape plan.

"Much of this brush is on steep hillsides, so it's more in the ecological interest of nature to not destroy the slopes," said Brian Beard, sales manager for Centex Homes, which is building homes for the project that will fetch $820,000 to $1.03 million each.

Branches crackled Thursday as the black, brown, tan and white horned goats chomped their way through the growth. True to their reputation, the goats are willing to eat nearly anything, including poison oak.

Mike Gerald, land development manager for the project, said he will encourage Stone Canyon Preserve's homeowners association to continue using goats when further maintenance is needed.

"This is a very old, effective way of doing this, and there's a definite human charm to it," Gerald said.

It's no petting zoo. The goats haven't been domesticated. The Great Pyrenees are fiercely protective of the goats -- they fended off a dozen coyotes that gathered Wednesday night -- and there's an electrical fence surrounding the goats' work areas, which keeps them from wandering and bars wild animals from encroaching.

Gerald said he expects the activity to draw curiosity seekers and animal lovers, who would have especially enjoyed the hungry goats' dusty rush down a hill Thursday.

"Did you see that?" Gerald asked. "There's no other way to describe that but amazing."

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