With the bulk of wildfire season on the horizon, officials in the Mountain West region are working to minimize risks. And sometimes they’re getting help from four-legged friends.
On a warm spring morning, Georgia Vasey is hiking up a trail on the western side of Carson City, Nevada.
“This is the time when all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Wow, Nevada is not just like brown and dry,’ ” says Vasey, the city’s natural resource specialist. “It looks kind of green from a distance. But it’s all the green-up of all of the grasses.”
From a distance, you can see the green hillside is painted in a swath of white that appears to be moving. As you get closer, before you can clearly see what’s covering the hill, you can hear the loud bleating of sheep.
Up close, the sheep look like they’re just happily chomping on grass. But Vasey says they’re doing much more.
“What happens after fires is that you’ll get this flush of fine fuels,” she says. “Sheep graze the grass to hopefully reduce those fine fuels.”
The main one is cheatgrass, an invasive species that spreads quickly and is highly flammable. And these sheep aren’t shy about eating it. Vasey says each one can eat about five pounds of hay a day.
In all, there are 1,400 sheep in two flocks that will mow down cheatgrass from sunrise to sunset over the course of a month and a half.
“We’re not going to prevent fires,” Vasey says. “This place will always burn. But what we can see is that areas that have been grazed and then we get a fire again, the intensity of the fire is much, much less and they’re much more manageable for the fire department.”
Getting rid of the grasses and brush that fuel wildfires is a critical part of managing western lands. Usually, it’s done by a prescribed burn. But using livestock is becoming more common, especially in California.
Along with flocks of sheep, herds of grazing goats and cattle are being moved across California to reduce wildfire threats. In the past two years, the state has experienced six of its seven largest wildfires.
Back in Carson City, Vasey is creeping quietly toward a flock. “OK, let’s get a little closer. They might get a little skittish,” Vasey says.
Hundreds of ewes and lambs of varying sizes and shades of white are working their way up the hill. White fluffy guard dogs and herders roam alongside.
This is the 16th straight year that Carson City has used sheep to reduce wildfire risks. The program was sparked by the 2004 Waterfall Fire, which burned more than 8,000 acres and destroyed 18 homes in the area.
“That was a really scary fire,” Vasey says. “There’s obviously been many fires since then. But that one was, I think, Carson City’s most devastating fire that we have yet seen.”
Years later, the entire West is in a megadrought – and only getting drier. That’s why Vasey says the fuel-grazing sheep are more important than ever.
But the city also monitors what stages the grasses are in and how much is eaten each year. In grazing, sometimes less is more.
“If we’re over-doing it, if it was over-grazed, and that would allow us to, you know, pump the brakes and say, ‘Hey, this year, maybe you’re gonna have to avoid this area for the plants to have a little more time to regenerate,’ ” Vasey says.
The program comes at no cost to Carson City, which uses sheep from Borda Land and Sheep Company. The century-old ranch is owned by Ted Borda.
“We give him land for him to be able to graze his animals, and then in the end, we get the benefit of getting this free fuels management,” Vasey says.
She adds that Carson City is especially thankful for the partnership as wildfire seasons grow longer and more intense due to climate change.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.