National Guard Employs Fire Fighting Goats

By Spc K collett Published - July 9, 2004



Firefighting goats preparing to accomplish their mission.

Utah National Guard photo

Firefighting goats preparing to accomplish their mission.

Fire fighting can be tough, so why not just prevent the fires in the first place?  That is the job of the Natural Resource Management crew located at Camp Williams.  It goes back to the old adage of “An ounce of prevention is greater than a pound of cure.”  But these men and women are not alone in their fight to prevent fire.  This summer, they are being aided by a large group of extra hairy, four-legged fire fighters.

 In this case, about 520 goats arrived at Camp Williams on June 7th and became that ounce of prevention, or at least part of an innovative plan for fire prevention. 

 Goats along with herbicides, chainsaws, trimmers, natural fire resistant grasses and roads, all figure into the Utah National Guard equation for fire prevention.  Of course, none of this would add up with out accurate calculations, hard work, leadership and dedication by the crew at Camp Williams. 

 Doug Johnson is the National Resource Manager for the Utah National Guard.  Unlike the forest service who manages land for the sake of the land, Johnson manages the land for sake of the soldiers and their training needs.  If the military needs cover and concealment for training, Johnson and his crew make sure they get it.  If they need an area with a minimal fire risk for launching 40 mm grenades, then that is also delivered. 

A Red Card Holder snaps a photo of a precision water drop by a Blackhawk from the 112th CAB.

Range Control Officer calls in for a precision water drop

Photo by Spc Kelly K. Collett

A Red Card Holder snaps a photo of a precision water drop by a Blackhawk from the 112th CAB.
Photo by Spc Kelly K. Collett

Range Control Officer calls in for a precision water drop.

 Doug Johnson explains more about the goat program.  In 2000, his office received a grant from the Inner Agency Fire Committee through the Utah State University to experiment with some innovative fire prevention techniques.  That summer, they brought in 100 goats and did some experiments.  The goats were “deployed” into two-acre pens in high-risk areas on the Camp.

 “That concentrates the goats down to where they eat until they are satisfied.  And then we move them across the road, so we kind of leap frog them throughout the area.  During the 2001 fire, even though the flamelets were 40 to 50 foot high, when it hit these pens, the fire only penetrated at most 20 feet high.”

 “They can reach up to about six feet high to get to a food source,” Johnson commented about the goats, “They can even push smaller oak trees over.  Goats are mostly responsible for reducing the heavy fuels.  We mostly want them to eat the oak brush.  That’s the really heavy fuels on the landscape and that’s what carries really hot fires.” 

 Most people think goats will eat just about anything. “Well that is not true,” clarified Johnson.  “Contrary to popular rumor, they won’t eat everything.  There are certain plants that they would just have to be starved to eat.  But they’ll eat a lot of our heavy fuels pretty readily, like the sagebrush and the oak brush.  And they do a great job dealing with those fields.” 

The big catastrophic fires for Camp Williams have always been in the oak brush.  In the last ten years, the fires have burned up to 8,000 acres at a time.  But the blazing heat generated by the fires is not the only fire hazard at Camp Williams.  On some of the ranges, Unexploded Ordinance (also called UXO’s) could also be a danger to firefighting crews, but the Camp has developed a specialized response for those areas.   Highly skilled military personnel, known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), spray the ranges with herbicides to kill the grass and other fuels which in turn keep fires from igniting in those areas.

 The Utah National Guard also relies upon Red Card Holders – rugged individuals who have undergone extensive training on wildfire management – as the front line defense against fires.  Currently, the Camp has roughly 40 red card holders available to fight fires at anytime.

 To earn a Red Card, a volunteer must first complete a rigorous 40 hour course.   The course tests both the physical and intellectual toughness of its students.  The physical portion culminates in a 45 minute, three mile road march with a 45 lbs pack to be completed in 45 minutes, echoing military basic training.  It also teaches invaluable skills for fighting fire in the wild. 

 Lt. Col. Stuart, who earned his Red Card this May, elaborates, “You learn about weather conditions you learn about fire fuels, you learn about temperatures, humidity, and all those kind of things that affects how a fire acts.  You learn about all the different techniques for fighting fires. You learn about pump trucks. You learn about all the different tools and how to light back fires to burn out fuel before it becomes a fire. You learn about protective equipment that needs to be worn.  You learn how to cut fire lines.  We actually went out into the field and cut fire lines. [You learn] how to put out fire in every situation.” 

Red Card Holders prep a site for a round of water drops.. A pen that has been effectively "fire proofed" by its four-legged residents.
Photo by Spc Kelly K. Collett

Red Card Holders prep a site for a round of water drops..
Utah National Guard Photo

A pen that has been effectively "fire proofed" by its four-legged residents..

 Lt. Col. Stuart explains what comes next for a wildfire fighter, “The Incident Commander course is the next step above the Red Card certification. Those are the guys, the first guys that are going to be called when a fire is detected. Because now, not only do they know everything about the red card certification, they also will be the first guys on the job site to start directing fire fighting efforts.  They’ll be the ones talking to the helicopters, bulldozers, and to the land crews directing them and managing the fire.”

 The crew at Camp Williams no longer uses look-out towers, but instead they are trained to look for fires at any given time while they are working. There is pre-staged equipment for every range in case of fire.  For more high-risk locales, range control insures a fire truck will be on hand.

 “Every single day we monitor our fire fuels, the temperature and the humidity and make a fire hazard determination.  We go out and take grass samples and oak brush samples and we measure the amount of fire fuels. We measure the humidity, how much moisture is in those fuels. And determine what the fire probability is in those fuels.” states Lt. Col. Stuart. 

Digging fire lines in a high-risk area at Camp Williams.

Utah National Guard photo

Digging fire lines in a high-risk area at Camp Williams.

In this way, Range Control can determine the fire hazard for the day and schedule

training accordingly.  If it is extremely dry and the fire hazard is high, then many, or in some cases all training activities involving explosives of any sort can be canceled.

 For those Red Card Holders that want to further their training, there is the Incident Commander Course.  Staff members who complete this training, ultimately direct the fire fighting efforts.  “They’ll be the ones talking to the helicopters, the bulldozers, and the land crews, directing them and managing the fire.” Lt. Col. Stuart explained.

 Last month, Incident Commanders trained how to communicate with Blackhawk helicopter pilots.  They were the eyes on the ground that directed the water bucket in the sky.  The Commanders would relay information to the pilots about what kind of drop they needed, how they would mark the sight, wind speed on the ground and anything else that would prove to be vital information.  With the two groups working together, the pilots were able to successfully maneuver the 400 gallons of water to the areas that were targeted.  The training is essential for keeping fires under control and eventually extinguishing them.

 The Camp Williams’ men and women who work on the fire-prevention crews to prevent fire are a dedicated bunch.  Many of them have devoted hundreds of hours into certifications and expanding their knowledge of natural resources and fire fighting.  If the hours they put into certifications and trainings were counted as college credit, they would have multiple degrees in their field, explained one Red Card Holder last week.  Clearly, they exhibit a tremendous dedication to their field and enjoy the work which they carry out.

 As for the goats, they are also dedicated to the cause, but in this case their stomachs are their driving force. 

 All in all, this highly capable crew brings pounds of prevention to the table of fire prevention, and for a little help, they have invited goats to the table as well.  All right everybody…eat up!