California Goats Scarf Up Wildfire Threat

In 1991, a brushfire in the hills above Oakland burned nearly 3,000 homes. Now, at a cost of up to $15,000 an acre, constant clearing of flammable hillside brush is an expensive problem.

The city of Oakland has found an answer: Cue the goats.

"They are eating machines," says Oakland Fire Marshall Leroy Griffin. "I call them my 3,000 non-unionized city employees."

Goats are voracious. They eat leaves, branches, thistles, even the poison oak that wild land firefighters hate.

Goats also are agile on steep hillsides where it is difficult for humans to work.

The average goat eats about 5 percent of its body weight everyday. So if the brush was up to your knees and you had 40 goats that weighed about a hundred pounds each, it would take them less than a week to clear an acre of land.

It took the goats just 36 hours to clear a hillside in Laguna Beach. Goats fed, fire danger gone.

Goat Watchers

But the system is not without controversy. Some people complain that the goats strip the hills too bare.

There are companies that rent out thousands of goats for hillside clearance. Sometimes, residents need to be convinced of the benefits.

"It's not a machine that's running in their backyard all day long," said Bob McGrew of Ecosystem Concepts. "And once they've had 'em, they want 'em."

In the hills above Laguna Beach, where fire burned nearly 400 homes in 1993, Gary Schwager loves to watch the goats at work.

"We get a bottle of red wine and we sit out here, and some cheese," Schwager said, "and we really feel like we're in France."

ABC News' Brian Rooney originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" on Oct. 30, 2005.