2016 marked one of Guam’s worst fire seasons

 2016 marked one of Guam’s worst fire seasons

23 April 2017

published by https://www.postguam.com

Guam (USA) –  Last year marked one of Guam’s worst for wildfires, ravaging a whopping 8,000 acres of Guam land throughout 2016, said Christine Fejeran, Cooperative Fire Program manager.

With the amount of acreage that burned last year – approximately 6.2 percent of the entire island, Fejeran noted – the Department of Agriculture’s Forestry and Soil Resources Division has launched a series of outreach events and “Fire-wise” campaigns during this year’s dry season.

“We need to start looking at wildfire as a threat on the island,” Fejeran said. “We have for many years distanced ourselves from that threat, but many of the island’s villages have really felt the impact of wildfires in the last two years. Last year was the worst fire season we’ve had in decades.”

Last year saw about 770 wildfires over the course of the year, albeit some covering areas as small as a quarter of an acre.

However, four large-scale wildfires – Class E, Fejeran explained – accounted for a majority of Guam’s land that burned last year, covering about 2,617 acres combined, she said.

So far, this year’s dry season has seen 1,657 acres of Guam land burn as of April 13, according to Guam Forestry records. That’s approximately 1.2 percent of Guam, Fejeran said.

Fighting fires

With a staff of 12, including Fejeran, DOA’s forestry fire crew in partnership with the Guam Fire Department have worked together to put out these fires over the years, spending whole days and nights at times extinguishing flames and hosing down acres of land.

Recently firefighters have fought a slew of fires as the dry season rages on. Fejeran’s crew fought against blazes on April 13 in Santa Rita, spending nearly 12 hours guzzling down thousands of gallons of water across 550 acres within a southern valley near LeoPalace.

The next day, on April 14, the Forestry crew again battled another wild grassfire that razed more than 30 acres of Barrigada land.

However, more needs to be done to prevent these fires rather than just reacting to them, Fejeran said.

With the dry season ongoing and a year ahead of one of Guam’s worst fire seasons, Fejeran cautioned that more funding and resources needed to be allotted for wildfire preventative education in contrast to just suppressing the fires when they happen.

“We really do need to start looking long-term for wildfire,” Fejeran said. “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t lost the number of homes that other jurisdictions have seen. Since last year was the worst season I’ve ever seen and apparently the worst for the veteran team members, we need to do something about it.”

Prevention versus suppression

Fejeran also said funding preventative efforts would result in saving thousands of dollars, covering promotional items versus the cost of personnel required to extinguish completely preventable fires.

When a wildfire occurs, Fejeran explained that agencies take into account hazardous pay, overtime pay, night differential pay, medical services, auto fuel, protective gears, uniforms and, not to mention, thousands of gallons of water.

“There are all of these costs that we need to think about when we talk about fire suppression, and that’s why prevention is number one for us,” Fejeran said. “All of these costs associated with a fire, whether they’re direct or the byproduct, it all adds up. If we can stop putting all of our resources into suppression and into prevention, the cost savings are huge.”

Educating residents on establishing firebreaks near brush or by providing some sort of access to inland areas near their homes is one preventative measure Fejeran said would make a big difference in the event of a wildfire.

“The protection that firebreaks add help secure a community where houses would now have an added chance against a wildfire,” Fejeran said. “The alternative is if you don’t give access or provide a break, we lose a home or multiple homes.”

Another risk residents need to prepare for is something that might not seem like an immediate problem at first, Fejeran said. Ash and embers billowing from a fire can easily spread to nearby homes via strong winds within at least a 2-mile radius.

These byproducts of fire are cause for concern, she said, especially for residents living in a non-concrete structure or with a canopy in their yard.

“People might not see the fire and it might not directly impact them right then and there, but if ash and embers are blowing toward you, you’ve got a 2-mile radius to worry about.”

Educational outreach

Fejeran also stressed the importance of reaching out to the community, schools and residents in order to share insights related to starting wildfires.

For those who don’t know, “All of Guam’s wildfires are caused by people,” Fejeran said. Arson and fires accidentally or intentionally caused by poaching account for the island’s large amount of wildfires.

Educating villages and schools about their potential contributions to wildfires as well as preventative measures could go a long way to ensure Guam experiences less completely preventable wildfires, Fejeran said.

“We’re taking action now for the community to think about these fire threats,” Fejeran said. “It’s a matter of getting more people interested in participating in prevention and helping minimize the threats to be more resilient against wildfire.”

While this year’s dry season remains more wet than last year’s season, intermittent weather mixed with strong winds could account for a potential wildfire at any time, Fejeran said.

As the dry season continues through June, Guam Forestry urges residents to be aware of looming wildfire threats, and to plan against potential threats accordingly.

“The goal is to get residents and their neighbors to look at fire as a common threat, a threat that should unify us,” Fejeran said. “It’s good for a house or a family to think about this, but to spread it across the street and then across the village can help us become more fire-wise residents and a fire-adapted community.”

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