I'm writing this the day after Independence Day, and California is still on fire. Despite the passion for home fireworks, especially among the large hispanic population in my county, and the dependence on fireworks sales of many nonprofit groups hard hit by the crashing California budget, fireworks were declared illegal this year. There were no murmurs about it either; the air was gray, and the eerie orange light peculiar to wildfires subdued all argument.
I have many ties to Big Sur, fifty miles to the south. At this writing, it is totally evacuated, with no containment of the fires there yet in sight. More than a hundred thousand acres have already burned there.
If you live in undeveloped areas in California, you live with the idea of fire. Wildfires are as native to California as earthquakes. A climate with a normal five month drought, in which the hottest and driest months coincide, is going to develop an ecology which survives fires; some plants even depend upon them, such as the pines which need a hot fire to melt the resin around their seeds.
Human beings, as usual, have made a mess of this strange ecology. We've suppressed fires for decades in places which used to be swept by fire every few years, letting the brush and thatch build up until when fire comes, as it must, it is so hot it kills everything. We've even begun to heat up the climate, making every fire season earlier and more destructive than the one before. Fire season has never come this early in my lifetime.
We've also built our houses as if the fire will never come. People love views, so we build on ridges; wildfires race up slopes and explode on ridges. People love privacy, so we build on tiny back roads in the forest that are hard for fire crews to get to. People love independence, so we build without permits when we can get away with it; these homes aren't mapped by government agencies, so fire crews can't find them. People love nature, so we let the forest grow right up against our houses. We love natural materials too, so we build wood-sheathed houses and wooden decks and roof with wooden shingles.
But, we're learning, slowly. Goats, for example, are steadily gaining popularity as a means to reduce weedy, shrubby, and chaparral vegetation, especially in areas difficult to use large machinery on, such as steep slopes, which they disturb far less than humans do. They prune trees up as high as they can reach on their hind legs, about seven feet, creating a fuel break between ground and canopy vegetation. A fire that burns along the ground and stays out of the tree canopy is deeply to be preferred.
My goats are doing their part. No fires threaten us at the moment, but that is the right time to plan. My flock is pastured along our fence, where we are trying to maintain a defensible firebreak. They are supposed to eat down the brambles, poison oak, mixed shrubs, and thistles, and eat up the low live oak branches.
Goats are not the indiscriminate eaters of popular myth. They eat many things, true, but they are quite selective if given the opportunity. My goats have a strong hierarchy of favorite browses, and they have to be forced to eat the stuff low on the list. Poison oak, which I'd be happy to see eaten to nubs, is usually left until last.
Still it is nice to layer my various needs on top of each other-- to have a firebreak, to feed my goats, and to try to live in more harmony with my surroundings. A fireless California ecosystem is an unbalanced one, and what is unbalanced tends to tip over. I'm hoping it doesn't tip over on to us this year.