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Australia has already used satellite technology, helicopters with infrared cameras, and firetrucks with mobile data terminals to battle deadly wildfires. Next up are the goats.
The idea is to send out the four-legged laborers to munch through brush and leaf litter that can act as tinder during hot, dry years. In late October, around 40 of the animals were dispatched for a trial at an unused railway corridor across from Lue Public School. The workers, being animals, didn’t always stay focused on the job at hand.
“The school bus pulls up and the goats all turn around to have a look and see who is getting out of the bus,” said Caron McDonald, the school’s principal.
Goat handlers use electric fencing to try to keep their charges chomping in the right places. But some try to escape the electric pens. Others nibble the clothing of their handlers to see if it tastes good. Another challenge: Goats like to stay in family groups.
“When we’re trying to put together a mob to take somewhere, we think, ‘Oh, well we’ll take Judith because she’s a good follower,’” said Billie Johnstone, who has supplied goats to some of the New South Wales trials. “But if we take Judith, we have to take her daughters from last year, as well as their kids and Judith’s current kids.”
Climate change and associated drought have made wildfires more frequent and difficult to control in countries including Australia and the U.S. That has driven a debate about how best to manage stretched firefighting resources and what more can be done to prevent blazes from spreading quickly.
More than two dozen people died in Australia’s bush fires two years ago, which burned an area bigger than Washington state. An inquiry into the fires in New South Wales state, home to Sydney, recommended that authorities review hazard-reduction techniques such as controlled burning of loose vegetation, and consider the effectiveness of other methods.
One suggestion was to assess how livestock such as hungry goats can reduce woody weeds and hard-to-clear vegetation near forests and wild grasses that abut towns. It is estimated that 40 goats can chew through more than half an acre of dense vegetation in two weeks, and medium-density vegetation in one week, according to New South Wales authorities.
Peter McKechnie, deputy commissioner at New South Wales Rural Fire Service, said goats “are not the most high-tech thing” in firefighting but can do things beyond the abilities of crews or machinery. One advantage of the animals is that they make light work of rocky, undulating terrain that would be hard to tackle using traditional methods.