Goats at work

One of 350 goats hired by the San Manuel Fire Department to help reduce dried grass and brush from the reservation's wildland for fire prevention.

On June 9, San Manuel Fire Department was notified that it has received a Class 1 ISO Community Hazard Mitigation rating, placing the department in the highest tier for training, equipment readiness, fire prevention, staffing and emergency response.

The class 1 rating also places the department among the top 1 percent in the nation and among just 37 fire departments in California.

According to Mike Smith, who has served as San Manuel Fire Department fire chief since its establishment in 2003, the rating is a testament to the dedication of the department and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to investing in the safety of the reservation as well as the surrounding community.

Smith shared that the tribe requested that the reservation be reviewed and rated independently to gain data and a better understanding of the department’s ability to prevent and suppress structural fires within its community.

The rating process also allows insurance companies to review the fire prevention capabilities of communities as these capabilities are directly related to fire losses ⎯ its original intended purpose.

During the review preventative measures, fire department staffing, staff training, equipment and maintenance, emergency communications systems, water supply and fire hydrant systems are all analyzed.

Smith said, while he was comfortable with the department’s fire preventions and readiness, he was not expecting to earn a class 1 rating. The rating system has nine classes with class 1 being the highest, and Smith was expecting to earn a class 2 or 3 designation.

The reservation had previously been rated collectively with the unincorporated areas of the county of San Bernardino.

“This is a big deal in fire prevention,” Smith said. “It’s a phenomenal accomplishment to reach in 20 years as a department. I’m proud of the department and the tribe’s commitment to the community’s safety.”

The department has grown to include 41 personnel serving from one large station.

Smith said the department believes in sending the closest available resource to an emergency, as citizens do not care what badge the emergency responder is wearing so long as they are quick to respond and well qualified.

Approximately 25 percent of the calls San Manuel Fire responded to in 2019 were outside of the reservation, largely in San Bernardino and Highland.

One unique fire mitigation measure in practice by the department is the use of goatherds to clear brush and grass, proactively reducing fire fuel in the foothills of San Bernardino Mountains within the reservation.

The department launched the program last year and recently doubled it in size to include the services of 350 goats.

The goats are herded and fenced within targeted zones identified using the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

Smith said the goats have been “phenomenally successful,” clearing about an acre a day. The goats reduce dangerous fuels while causing less damage to the environment than mowing or disking and without the potential dangers of controlled burns.

Smith said reducing fire risks in the foothills of the “front country” is important to protecting the lives and property of tribal residents and residents of surrounding communities.

“Any effort to fire protect the front country has ramifications in protecting in other parts of the community as well,” Smith said.

According to Smith, the use of goats was modeled after practice in other states and nations with similar fire ecologies, such as Spain and Australia. Other departments within California have taken notice and are using San Manuel Fire’s success as a model for beginning similar programs.

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