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War In The Pacific Marine troops landing on Guam
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Wildfires and the Demise of Guam's Coral Reefs

  Wildfires are a significant problem on Guam because the native ecosystems are poorly adapted to burning. Fires are not a natural occurrence on the island, and the vast majority of all wildfires are the result of human activity, mainly arson. Local hunters intentionally set fires to facilitate hunting pigs and deer, and in the process burn off vegetation, leaving the land bare and the soils exposed. Heavy seasonal rains wash the soils into Guam's nearshore marine environment and onto the coral reefs.

Fire statistics from the past ten years show that, on average, over 700 fires are set a year, burning as much as 15,000 acres of land. While this acreage is small compared to mainland US standards, 15,000 acres is equal to about 20% of the total area of the island. If a fire of similar magnitude was to occur on the mainland USA, the entire states of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming would be in flames, while about a third of states would burn in an average fire season. The repeated burning of the land from year to year has created a chronic erosion problem, particular on the southern half of the island where most of the burning takes place.

Within the park, it has been estimated that as much as 20% of the park’s land is burned every year. While this value may be on the high end, wildfires in the park are not uncommon. Between June-November 2003, two large fires occurred in the park, and that was during the island's wet season! Five to ten fires a year are not uncommon in the park, most occurring between March and June, during Guam's dry season. How much of this dirt winds up on the park’s coral reef is uncertain, but the biologists at War in the Pacific are conducting research to measure spatial and temporal patterns of sedimentation on the reef and determining the origin of those sediments so that the park can develop a strategy to reduce the effects of this impact.

Dwayne Minton

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