Sheep Defend Carson from Wildfires

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CARSON CITY, Nev.--When the flames break out, firefighters are there. But before that happens, sheep may be Carson City's best defense against fire. A herd of more than 700 is grazing right now in an area once devastated by the Waterfall Fire.

The sheep in the Carson foothills are not doing anything special. For them it's just eating their favorite type of grass, but as they munch away, they're reducing fuels that burn quickest in a wildfire.

Morning is the favorite time of day for these sheep. The arrival of a water truck means its time for a drink. They are thirsty because all they've been doing for the last day is eating dry grass.

"In this project we are trying to reduce grasses at the interface," said Ann Bollinger with Carson City's Open Space Program.

"We use the sheep to reduce the fine flashy fuels. So cheatgrass is one of the worst enemies we have for wildland fires," said Stacey Giomi, Carson City Fire Chief.

Cheatgrass is an invasive weed. It stays low to the ground and is quick to spread flames quickly. Fire officials want it gone from this hillside so they can better protect Carson City.

"They don't eat everything, they don't eat mature plants. They will eat some of the annual grasses as well but that is OK. It's really sort of a targeted way to reduce fuel," said Giomi

"We have 750 sheep plus their lambs. Per day that equals about 4,000 pounds of fuel reduced off the landscape," said Bollinger.

"Well I think it is great. When the started it. I thought that is just a tremendous idea," said a resident in the area.

The sheep program is popular because its cheap. To reduce fuels on 2,000 acres, it only costs about $5,000. Residents in the area say it's well worth it to protect homes.

"I think anything that they do here helps," he said.

The sheep will graze here for another three weeks, after that, what cheatgrass is left will have matured to a point that the sheep no longer find it palatable. but likely by that time most of it will have already been eaten.