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A herd of Boer goats roams the hillsides at Big Rock Mesa earlier this month. The goats have been brought in by the local property owners association to eat vegetation that fuels wildfires. (photo by Patrick Timothy Mullikin)

MALIBU — Standing in formation atop a hill, ruminating, the camera-shy goat herd stands still just long enough for a few photos to be taken before Mary, the lead goat, signals it’s time to move on.

Thirty Boer goats from Topanga Canyon-based “Hire a Herd” have been contracted by the Big Rock Mesa Property Owners Association in Malibu to keep the area’s flammable vegetation in check. Their mission? Eat.

And they are gluttons, consuming virtually anything in their path at Big Rock Mesa: a mix of native chaparral and invasive grasses and plants. Boer goats, says “Hire A Herd” owner Karen Simer, consume roughly 1/10th of their weight daily. That’s 16 pounds of vegetation per 160-pound goat.

If the goats do their job, they will also help keep wildfires at bay, says association president Al Broussard.

“We live in ‘Fire City’ basically. We’re trying to clear a corridor around Big Rock that gives us a good fire protection,” Broussard says, with a sweep of his arms. “The fire department’s attitude is that every property owner should clear his property. We’ve determined that even if you clear around your property you’re still not going to be very safe because of the way fire comes in.”

As it turns out, says Broussard, a fire’s path is predictable.

For Broussard, a retired special effects coordinator who created some of the biggest fires on film, including “Volcano,” “Firestarter” and “Backdraft,” protecting Big Rock from fire is a top priority. He lost his home in the 1993 Malibu blaze.

“I love this community, and I know we live in a fire area,” he says, but its picturesque setting comes with a price. Big Rock Mesa’s fire season is year-round.

Enter the vegetation-clearing goats.

The association, which includes 260 families, has budgeted $4,500 for the first 30 days, he says. Subsequent months will run $3,200, and the association has budgeted for 20 weeks. Additional funds have been set aside for hand crews, if needed. Work crews, he says, charge about $450 an acre. Livestock clearing costs about half that amount.

“We’re trying to establish a cleared corridor that we can maintain year after year and plant fire-resistant plants and trees,” he says.

This is the third time in the past 10 years the association has used goats and sheep (the two have different eating patterns and plant preferences, says Simer) to clear weeds and brush.

Earlier efforts had mixed results. Year one was successful. Year two was a drought year, and the animals wouldn’t eat the dry foliage.

But this year’s roughly 100-acre project is different and should be a great success, says Malibu Mayor Pro Tem and association member Lou La Monte.

“Brush clearance is the biggest problem we have up here. We’re right in the line of fire,” he says. “(This year’s project) is a wonderful marriage of high-tech and low-tech.”

Gluttonous goats are the low-tech side; the high-tech component is a new software program co-invented by Broussard’s 26-year-old son, Shea Broussard of Oak Park, and retired fire captain and Malibu resident Tony Shafer.

Their Flame Mapper software (www.flamemapper.com) maps wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains back to the early 1900s, records the history of wildfires in the area and pinpoints areas where the goats and sheep should be deployed, says the younger Broussard.

The beauty of the software, says Shea, is its simplicity and accessibility.

“I can take some really complex stuff and simplify it. Ideally, news agencies can have it, and people can use it to help figure out evacuation routes,” he says.

Using both program and livestock, the association plans to clear a corridor (a combination of private property and Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy parcels) around Big Rock so that subsequent fires will bypass homes.

Unlike in years past, when goats and sheep wandered Big Rock Mesa hillsides or were penned in loosely, the 30 Boers (more goats are scheduled to join the herd in the following weeks or months, along with a complement of Navajo Churro sheep) are secure within electric-fenced parcels whose precise locations have been determined by Flame Mapper.

John Fay, a caretaker for association homeowner Steven Pressfield, laughs as he recounts the story of a surprised Pressfield who discovered a stray goat peering in his bedroom window.

“Steve woke up one morning to a goat with its face pressed against the window — in stop mode.”

Broussard makes it clear those peeping Tom goats hailed from Texas, adding the goats also shunned sumac, a particularly flammable and profuse shrub.

“They are gasoline bushes,” he says, pointing to a stand of the resinous shrub. “We now use local goats.”

As the project enters its second week, Simer says of the herd: “They are on task and doing their job.”

news@www.smdp.com

Mullikin is a freelance writer for the Malibu Times. This article first appeared in that publication.

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