A group of homeowners in Santa Barbara is getting creative when it comes to preventing fires in the neighborhood.
Goats and sheep.
Members of the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association have imported the animals to graze on the chaparral and vegetation to reduce the amount of fuel in the event of a wildfire.
“So far, it’s going well,” Loy Beardsmore, association president, said in a recent interview with Noozhawk. “We can see the difference.”
The group is made up of about 700 homeowners in the Eucalyptus Hill area of Santa Barbara. Members have tried to work with the City of Santa Barbara on abatement, but a lack of city funding forced them to hire a company to bring in more than 100 goats and sheep.
The recent Loma Fire, which charred a slab of hill on the Westside, served as a sudden reminder of the imminent fire danger faced by so many Santa Barbara residents. For Beardsmore and other residents in the area, fire is not an occasional threat — it’s a constant reality. They have survived the Tea, Thomas and Jesusita fires.
“Our association could no longer sit idly by and let what just happened with the Loma Fire occur in our neighborhood,” Beardsmore said. “Our canyons are the gateway to the Eastside, Lower Eastside, Riviera and bordering Montecito. We are in the Extreme High Fire Danger hillside of the city.”
The homeowners are paying about $850 an acre, and another $800 for the transportation cost of the animals.
Beardsmore said she is aware of homeless encampments in the area. While the goats and sheep might not be the ideal answer, it’s a path that she and the homeowners don’t regret.
“Obviously, something is better than nothing,” Beardsmore said. “At least they are down there eating away.”
Santa Barbara Fire Chief Chris Mailes said the city has numerous areas of land considered to be in the Wildland Urban Interface, with more than 40 canyons.
“We have several areas that are considered high fire and very-high fire zones,” Mailes said.
This year, the City Council approved the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which takes a comprehensive look at the fire-prone areas in the city. The plan will allow fire crews to focus on areas of the city as time, resources and funding become available, Mailes said.
Regarding the use of the goats, Mailes said the city is restrained to take similar action.
“While it may seem like we can move goats into any area of vegetation, it isn’t that simple,” Mailes said. “As a government entity, we are required to obtain environmental and biological reports for each area where we intend to graze animals or perform any mitigation. Private citizen groups do not have those restrictions when they want to place goats into private property. Additionally, we are limited to certain times of the year due to environmental factors, such as bird nesting season.”
In the past, Mailes said, the city has used goats in Parma Park, but there are many options to consider.
“The use of goats, while a viable option for a small area, does not look at the bigger picture of widespread community fire protection,” he said. “The best use of taxpayer money is to work on the Community Fuels Treatment Network (CFTN). This fuel break extends from the Montecito border to the western edge at Highway 154.”
Fuels mitigation is “extremely costly,” Mailes said.
He said the next best use of funding is to concentrate on providing defensible space around homes. The fire department consults with and provides free inspections around homes with the goal of minimizing impacts of an approaching wildfire.
Regarding the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association, Mailes said the area is within the Wildland Fire Suppression Assessment District, which supports one employee who is 100% dedicated to the area.
“It also supports mitigation projects that substantially lessen the wildfire threat,” Mailes said.
As part of the program, Mailes said, the residents in the assessment area receive additional wildfire mitigation, including vegetation road clearance, defensible space inspections, vegetation management, and management of the community fuels treatment network and vegetation management units.
“The city does have budgetary limitations that require us to focus on the needs of the entire community,” Mailes said. “While I applaud a neighborhood group’s use of goats, we must think of the entire city protection.”
He said he commends the residents, however, for their work.
“The EHIA is a dedicated group of citizens that places high priority on wildfire safety,” Mailes said. “I admire their passion, dedication and support of the fire department.”
Mailes said the department sent two fire personnel to one of the group’s recent neighborhood gatherings.
“Even within this group, there exists a difference of opinion on how to mitigate fire threat,” Mailes said. “We have always stayed the course and given advise on defensible space and have given them information on the mitigation efforts we are taking.”
The fire department for next fiscal year has requested to fill a fire inspector position, requested an additional $100,000 of funding for a wildland fire inspector to focus on the Community Fuels Treatment Network, and requested funding to update the “Ready, Set, Go” program, which focuses on wildfire preparation.
Mailes also said that the fire department has been attempting to secure grants for additional funding. He noted that Santa Barbara is in the midst of a historic drought, and the fire department is working every day to mitigate the wildfire threats brought on by the drought.
“Additionally, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has significantly eroded city finances,” Mailes said. “We are currently expected to operate with an approximate $8 million shortfall. This will limit the funding available for this type of work.”
Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon offered praise for the homeowners group. She said they do an amazing job and are a model for what other neighborhoods can do to protect themselves from wildfires.
She said she understands the group’s frustrations. She would like for the city to find a way to fund their efforts.
“I’d like the city to create a fund to support what they do,” Sneddon said.