Legislature hears bill amending wildfire and arson laws

A grass fire on Route 4 and Chalan Mapao, Talofofo (PNC file photo)

The Legislature’s Committee on Land publicly heard on Tuesday proposed legislation that takes a tougher stance against arson or human-caused wildfires.

Sen. Sabina Perez introduced Bill 314-35 — legislation that seeks to add burning of forest land as a prohibited action under Guam’s arson statute.

“Bill 314-35 will help address increasingly serious wildfires that we are experiencing in Guam this will help preserve our fragile environment as well as protect the lives, homes, businesses, and property,” Perez said during the hearing. 

She said that the community had witnessed these threats. In recent decades, wildfires in Guam burned an average of 3.5 percent of the island and the number is still growing.

According to Perez, the Department of Agriculture and the Pacific Fire Exchange reported that 468 wildfires burned 4.7 percent of the island in 2018. This constitutes 6251 acres including 290 acres of native forest in just one year.

In 2019 the number increased further to seven percent of the island. 

Wildfires on Guam are rarely started due to natural causes such as lightning, according to Perez.

According to the Department of Agriculture and the Pacific Fire Exchange, most wildfires are set by people and usually by unethical hunters who use arson as a tool to frighten and corral their prey.

“Unfortunately our current laws do not adequately address this type of arson that leads to most wildfires. Bill 314-35 will outlaw the reckless burning of forest land — defined as any brush-covered land, cut over land forests, grasslands, jungle, or woods. By including forest lands in the arson statute, the measure will allow the AG’s office to better prosecute arsonists and poachers,” Perez said.

Edwin Reyes, Guam Coastal Management Program administrator, said the Army Corps of Engineer estimated that it costs $75 000 to reforest an acre of land in Guam’s upper watersheds.

 “So if you think about how much of that land is burnt after a reforestation effort is put in place. It’s just really frustrating to hear. So I’ve been in meetings where we celebrated the success of putting in three acres of forested area and then the next year, two of those three acres are burnt,” Reyes said.

Director Chelsa Muna Brecht said the bill compliments Guam’s forest action plan which describes wildfires as a top threat to forest and natural resources.

She said the bill provides wildfire investigators and law enforcement with the necessary language to appropriately charge individuals suspected of arson.

She said the proposed amendments are consistent with the division’s mission to conserve, protect, and enhance Guam’s vegetative environment and sustain natural resources that are dependent on healthy forests.