With staff from Menlo Park, the McGrews tramp through the terrain, fencing small trees and sensitive native plants to protect them from ravenous appetites. Then the hungry weed eaters themselves arrive. The Surichaqui brothers lead them into a fenced-off area of yellowing wild oats. The goats begin work immediately. Three hundred and fifty of them can denude an acre a day, consuming low branches and foliage, stripping bark from French and Scotch broom and other shrubs, eating grass down to putting-green height. After such a meal, they are moved to another acre.
Brea McGrew stepped back and watched them admiringly. "You know, goats are very intelligent," she said. "They're trainable, like dogs. And they work together. They think. One will get up on her hind legs and pull a branch down for the others, and they'll all browse together."
Throughout California, goats were dining out. Above the championship golf course at Pebble Beach, a herd was systematically carving a 35-acre firebreak. In the East Bay parks, goats were eating their way across 400 acres of buffer area. "What I like about goats," Ed Leong, a park supervisor in the East Bay Regional Park District, told me, "is they do their work so quietly. People who come to our parks don't like the noise of brush-clearing machinery."
Laguna's Mike Phillips said that just three things contribute to wildland fires. "Fuel loads, topography and weather." He paused, then smiled. "We can't change the topography, and we can't do anything about the weather. The only variable to reduce is the fuel load. That's what goats do for us."