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A shepherd prevents wildfires in the Oakland hills

on July 28, 2010

Francisco Ballesteros stands on Old Tunnel Road, halfway to the crest of the Oakland hills, and looks down into a small valley where a herd of sheep and goats are grazing. “I have seven new babies,” he says, then gingerly starts making his way down a dirt path towards the animals. He stops and points to something on the ground. “There’s the placenta,” he says. With his small bamboo staff, he gently picks it up and puts it under a bush so no one will step on it.

Francisco Ballesteros’ sheep and goats.

Ballesteros is a modern-day shepherd, but the sheep and goats he’s tending aren’t being raised for meat or milk—they’re here to prevent the spread of fire. For the last 13 years, Ballesteros, a rotund 42-year-old man with darkly tanned skin and a gray mustache, has been bringing sheep and goats to the Oakland hills to eat the tall grass and shrubs that provide lethal fuel to wildfires.

“Animals are great fire prevention,” he says, “and there’s no pollution.” He explains that without animals, people need to cut, rake and dump overgrown vegetation, which involves the heavy use of gasoline and labor, especially for the properties where Ballesteros works, which can be 20 acres or larger. Sheep and goats are sustainable and environmentally friendly he says.

The use of animals for cutting grass is nothing new; in fact, it’s been done in the United States since the days of George Washington, who used sheep to keep his lawn trim. But using animals specifically for fire prevention has only been done since the 1980’s. For Oakland, it took the 1991 firestorm for the city to look into new ways of preventing the spread of fire.

After the 1991 fire ripped down the mountain, destroying 1,500 acres, 3,400 homes and killing 25 people, the City of Oakland put in stricter regulations for homeowners in the hills. That blaze caused the largest fire losses in U.S. history at the time, with over $2.2 billion in damages. One of the main reasons why the burn got so out of control was because the hills were overgrown with too much vegetation.

In the early 1900’s, the Oakland hills were predominantly covered by a mixed hardwood forest, Redwood forest and grasslands. By the 1990’s, highly flammable non-native trees, like Eucalyptus, and various dry scrubs, both grasses and bushes, had taken over. These plants, when ignited by burning embers and propelled by the 60 miles-per-hour hot, dry Diablo winds led to the disastrous fire.

Vegetation on the right side of the fence has been cleared, while the left is still overgrown.

Now, the Oakland Fire Prevention Bureau inspects all properties in the hills to ensure that they are in compliance with “vegetation management requirements” that are written into the California Fire Code. These require that grass be trimmed to six inches or less within 30 feet of a structure and that there be at least a 10-foot clearance of vegetation by roadsides. Property owners who don’t comply are fined.

Ballesteros got his start in fire prevention as a landscaper. He was hired by homeowners in the Oakland hills to cut and clear grass on their properties. His meticulous work was noticed by Oakland Fire Department inspector Dan Blackman, who suggested that Ballesteros look into the possibility of using animals to clear vegetation off properties. Having worked with animals much of his life growing up in Amatlán de Cañas, Mexico, Ballesteros loved the idea.

He began his business with 10 goats and 10 sheep donated to him by a family he knew. “I start with a little here and a little there and breed and breed,” he says. Today, Ballesteros has 15 goats and 150 sheep, a ranch in Stockton where he takes care of the animals and employees when he needs help. Wearing huarache sandals and sweats, he watches with pride as his animals graze the steep Oakland hills terrain. He has become a fixture in this neighborhood—most residents know him and smile or wave as they pass by.

“People say ‘you got a easy job,’” Ballesteros says. “I say ‘No, I gotta stay here, I gotta get up in the night if they make noise.” His job is 24/7 and he considers the animals to be his children. He is always with them; whenever he has a job clearing vegetation, which takes around two weeks, he lives in a small battery-powered trailer next to wherever they are grazing. He bathes them, cuts their wool, gives them medicine, trims their hooves and takes them to the veterinarian twice a year.

He is hired by individual homeowners but is also well known by the Oakland Fire Prevention Bureau, which recommends Ballesteros to residents who need to get their property up to code. On the average he clears around 10 properties a year. In the winter, when fire danger is low, he takes his animals to graze the alfalfa fields near Stockton.

Sheep and goats grazing in the Oakland Hills.

For a typical job, Ballesteros begins by laying a 1,100-feet fence. He parcels the land into segments, so that each part of a property gets thoroughly cleared and his animals don’t wander off. The portion of the fence that divides an open field is usually electrified, which he keeps charged with a solar panel. “If I don’t put the electric fence, the deer tear it down,” he says, explaining that the deer want to get in and eat the same vegetation as the goats and sheep. “The deer are very jealous.”

He then gets the water ready for his animals, by setting up a trough, two water tanks and hoses. Finally, he hauls the sheep and goats from his ranch in Stockton and then constantly herds them in between the segments of land he parceled out on each property.

As the sheep bleat and the goats baa, chomping on grass and biting leaves off the coyote brush, their beige, white and brown coats blend in with the dried golden grass and dirt. Ballesteros explains that having the duo of sheep and goats is perfect for completely clearing the land because sheep like the lower part of the grass and goats like the higher part. “The sheep is like a vacuum,” he says. Their favorite plants are poison oak, thistle, dry grass, coyote brush and the softer grass that grows in the shade of the pine trees, says Ballesteros.

There is always a waiting list for Ballesteros and his herd to clear properties. “I can’t push the animals to eat more—you gotta wait,” he says. “It’s not like cutting grass.” With animals, he explains, you have to understand their habits and needs. Although he never imagined that this could be his job, he says that he loves it and will keep doing it for as long as he can. “Everyday I learn,” he says. “I always come in and spend time with them, and if the animals know you, you can work with the animals.”

Lead image: Francisco Ballesteros, the shepherd of the Oakland Hills.

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