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  Fire on Nicholl Knob and a Tribute to Goats
June 16, 2004

When we first moved to Point Richmond some 30 years ago, the annual fireworks were hosted by the Richmond Fire Department from the top of Nicholl Knob. A natural result of the display was that the falling cinders set the hill aflame, sort of an encore to the main event, and provided some training and diversion for Richmond firefighters and an additional spectacle for those not quite ready to go home to bed. This ritual happened year after year. In the following spring, the deep rooted native bunchgrasses emerged strong and green, and other natives, such as Coyote Bush and Toyon re-sprouted. Oaks survived and wildflowers were abundant. The Native Americans had used fire for thousands of years to encourage an ecosystem that provided food for their table, and this is what the early settlers of Richmond inherited and what had persisted, thanks to the Richmond Fire Department, well into the Twentieth Century.


Sometime in the 1970’s, City Hall decided it represented questionable judgment to burn down the hills every summer, so the Nicholl Knob fireworks ceased. Hills that had been barren of anything but the native coastal grasslands for millennia grew lush with Poison Oak and Blackberries, exotic annual grasses, Monterrey Pine and French Broom. Fire persisted, however, with the days prior to the Fourth of July the most common time for a flare up.


When we built our home on the north slope of Nicholl Knob in 1984, we knew annual fires were a certainty, and they were getting worse because of the build up of brush. As fate would have it, however, a friend offered us two female goats that had outgrown their yard’s ability to sustain them. It turned out they were pregnant, and two goats turned quickly into six goats. We put them to work, creating a fire break in anticipation of the following summer’s conflagration. It worked.


Over the years, the size of our herd has ranged from as high as twelve to as few as one. In the early years, we lost many to feral dogs, but that seems to have run its course. We’ve lost a few to disease and old age (see The Passing of Big Floyd, E-FORUM February 29, 2004), and at least four were stolen. Two were recovered live by Richmond Police, but two others became cabrito, with heads and hides found in a plastic bag on Second Street. One simply disappeared, obviously taken up by a flying saucer. Our herd is stable now at six, led by Hans, a handsome white Angora wether with huge curled horns. Fortunately, they are all too old and tough now to make a good meal for anyone.


Hans and Company are doing their job. What was once a fifteen-foot high forest of Poison oak, Blackberries and French Broom has been reduced to a few inches of mostly grass. Last year’s Nichol Knob fire that started above the Wastewater Treatment Plant roared up the hill, stopping dead at the goat pasture fence. Although this year’s most recent fire burned out before it topped Nicholl Knob (with a lot of help from firefighters), those of us who live below were somewhat secure in the fact that the north slope of the Knob had been cleared of substantial brush and grass by hardworking goats.


Due to last year’s early rains, the hills are more of a fire hazard than ever. The East Loop Trail around the hills of Miller-Knox Park has become so completely overgrown by French broom that it is impassable – the first time this has ever happened. Fires are always a bit scary, but they perform a useful and perhaps essential function – as do goats.


(Fire photo courtesy of Ellen Gailing)