Two herds of goats and sheep, totalling 800 head, arrived at San Domenico School in Sleepy Hollow May 26, 2018 as part of a large-scale fire hazard reduction project spearheaded in late 2016 by Sleepy Hollow Fire Protection District (SHFPD). This unique project is a collaborative effort resulting from the 2016 SHFPD Wildfire Hazard and Wildland Urban Interface Area Assessment, which identified key locations for fuel reduction to reduce the impact of wildfires in Sleepy Hollow and neighboring communities. By partnering with adjacent local landowners, including Rocking H Ranch, Triple-C Ranch, San Domenico School, andMarin County Open Space District (MCOSD), the multi-agency project aims to reduce hazardous fuels on nearly 200 acres of high-risk grass woodlands in and around Sleepy Hollow.Wildfire Risk Assessment
“Goat grazing can be a cost effective solution to reduce fuels and wildfire hazard in many parts of Marin,” says Rich Shortall, President of both SHFPD and FIRESafe MARIN. “This is the largest goat grazing project I’m aware of in Marin, and is pretty unique in the way it involves such a diverse group of public and private landowners.” Shortall also noted that the project will provide some level of protection to at least 7 Marin communities, including Sleepy Hollow, San Anselmo, San Rafael, Terra Linda, Marinwood, Lucas Valley, and Fairfax.
The goats, owned by Star Creek Land Stewards of Los Banos, CA, began grazing over the winter on Rocking H Ranch, helping to reduce and “de-thatch” decades of growth in 115 acres of native grasses while turning over soil with hundreds of tiny hooves. Shortall gives credit to Rocking H Ranch and ranch manager Arlo Seaver for helping get the project off the ground. “It was critical for us to find a suitable location to load and unload the goats, and provide winter grazing grounds. Rocking H has used the goats in the past, and their experience with the livestock contractor, and their generosity in loaning ranch facilities, was the real catalyst that moved the project from planning to reality,” Shortall said.
“Rocking H introduced goats as part of our integrated land management and fuel reduction program back in 2015, so when Rich reached out to us, we were happy to help,” Seaver said. “It’s an important cause and has been really rewarding to expand and partner with our neighbors. It reflects the commitment to agriculture, community and sustainability that Rocking H has and we look forward to more."
As spring approached, the herd of 400 goats moved to neighboring lands in the Terra Linda-Sleepy Hollow Divide Open Space where they joined a second herd of 400 sheep and goats helping to reduce fuels and invasive weeds at the rate of 1 to 2 acres per day on public lands. Priority areas for grazing include fire roads and preserve edges where grazing helps enhance defensible space near homes.
Careful attention was paid to areas where invasive weeds are present to ensure the goats and sheep don’t spread seeds to new areas. The animals grazed impacted areas before the plants flowered and produced seeds. “In addition to fuel reduction goals, this grazing project helps prevent the spread of invasive barbed goatgrass, which can threaten rare serpentine plants and wildlife habitats,” says Sarah Minnick, Vegetation and Fire Ecologist for MCOSD.
Andrée Soares of Star Creek Land Stewards says great thought is given to the species and health of the animals. “We ‘prescribe’ the number of animals, density and duration as well as species and breed of animals to each specific site and project dependent on the goals to be achieved, as well as animal health and appropriate approach for each grazing site.”
As the goats enter San Domenico School, a new phase of the project begins, focused heavily on public safety and wildfire hazard reduction. “San Domenico School represented a unique opportunity for fuel reduction. The campus is located at the end of Butterfield Road in a location with a long history of wildfires, and the number of students and dormitories makes it challenging to evacuate during a fire,” says Todd Lando, Coordinator at FIRESafe MARIN and author of the 2016 Hazard Assessment. “Fuel reduction will occur on 30 acres of the 515-acre campus, using goats, followed by hand crews and tree work, to greatly reduce the impact of any wildfires in the area and improving the safety of students and faculty when they ‘shelter in place’ during a fire.”
“This great example of sustainable land management, community collaboration, and natural systems to our school and valley. It is a really fantastic gift to our community,” says Kimberly Pinkson, Director of Communications at San Domenico. “When the goats arrived, all afternoon students, parents, and neighbors have been walking along the fences enjoying our new guests.”
There are important community benefits, as well. A 1923 wildfire, recognized as the largest ever recorded in Marin at 50,000 acres, burned through Sleepy Hollow Ranch where the school is located today. (The ranch was saved, ironically, by high school students bussed in from Tamalpais and San Rafael High Schools to fight the fire, according to news reports from the time). “As we saw in 2017, fires tend to burn the same areas repeatedly,” Lando said. “Fire modeling sponsored by SHFPD as part of our hazard assessment showed a real risk of a fire burning through San Domenico from Lucas Valley - before reaching the rest of Sleepy Hollow. Reducing fuels at San Domenico and along the ridges may allow firefighters to stop a fire there before it reaches the other 850 homes in our valley.”
When they finish clearing more than 30 acres of grass and brush at San Domenico, the goats will move back to open space lands to create a 100 foot wide ‘reduced fuel zone’ along the ridge between Sleepy Hollow and Terra Linda. The grazed area will extend from San Domenico School to Fawn Drive and Fox Lane at the southeast end of Sleepy Hollow, allowing firefighters to work more safely and effectively along a critical ridge where wildfires can burn from one community to another. In June, the goats will move to nearby Triple-C Ranch, where they will make their way through 10 acres of grass and brush behind nearby homes.
Land managers and SHFPD aim to evaluate the effectiveness of the project when it’s complete, and begin planning for long-term maintenance of the grazed areas. “We understand that this is not a one-year project and we’re done,” says Shortall. “The Fire District is in it for the long-haul. We’ll continue to fund and facilitate this kind of work for years to come, and are already looking at new areas to reduce fuels next year.”
SHFPD, MCOSD and our partners encourage all Marin residents to take responsibility for wildfire safety around their homes by creating defensible space (it’s the law!) and preparing for wildfire before it’s too late. More information is available at firesafemarin.org.