Land on Fire

Ranchers are at the helm of a highly cost-effective tool to reduce fuel loads.
​That tool is called grazing.

​More and more, government agencies, including fire departments, have realized the value of enlisting sheep or cattle producers that can truck their animals to locations where ground cover “ladder fuels” like grass and shrubs need mowing. The ranchers themselves could use the forage, and their animals, unlike mechanical mowers, don’t throw off sparks that could accidentally start a blaze.

​Strategic deployment has yielded positive results, especially in the wildland-urban interface. Vineyard operators are increasingly partnering with livestock producers for the service. A valuable co-benefit is noxious weed control. In the wine country of Sonoma County, where the housing density, and thus the fire risk to property, has increased at a staggering pace in the past two decades, the University of California Ag Extension created a new online service called match.graze where landowners seeking fuel reduction can enlist ranchers.

​That niche, called “target grazing,” is one that Jaime Irwin, her husband Robert and their family are filling. Their company, Kaos Sheep Outfit, based in Lake County, California, has been enlisted by local towns, fire departments, land trusts, watershed protection groups, vineyards, local airports and homeowners. Their flocks have been chomping grass and forbs primarily between Interstate 5 and US Highway 101 close to the Pacific Coast.