As Palau approaches its dry season, which runs from the end of December to April, a network of government and community partners are addressing the threat of wildfires, particularly in Babeldaob.
This past dry season saw a considerable amount of uncontrolled fires, with Aimeliik experiencing the largest forest fire ever recorded in Palau. The fire burned for three days and scorched an estimated 180 acres of forest and field.
The Network for Wildfire Prevention, made up of several government and community organizations, including the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the Protected Areas Network (PAN), the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism (MNRET), and the Ebiil Society, is developing an action plan to prevent and respond to fires like this, and to decrease the damage they cause to the environment and community resources.
The plan involves a mixture of community education endeavors and improved surveillance and coordination between State PAN officers and the MOJ Fire Department.
Representatives of MNRET have said that wildfires in Babeldaob “kill biodiversity and forests, degrade drinking water and downstream fishing grounds, waste topsoil, and are safety hazards”.
At a planning workshop in November, Chief Godwin Philip of the Division of Fire and Rescue said that limited manpower, aging equipment, malfunctional fire hydrants, and unfamiliarity with forested land in Babeldaob all limit the Fire Department’s ability to fight fires by itself. However, the donation of two firetrucks from Japan within the last year and a half have improved Palau’s capacity to manage fires.
A surveillance plan proposed by the Network for Wildfire Prevention involves on-site monitoring by State PAN Rangers for fires, focusing on places which have seen repeated burning, while the Fire Department carries out “round the island” monitoring during the dry season.
The Network also developed a plan for “coordinated responses” to reports of fires, which involves an initial arrival and assessment by State PAN Officers, who will give their assessment to MOJ firefighters when they arrive at the scene. PAN Officers will direct traffic and help with other logistics as the Fire Department suppresses the fire.
The Network is also spearheading a campaign to provide education on wildfire hazards for affected communities, in schools and also for farmers, hunters, and government workers.
According to a report by Research Ecologist Julian Dendy of the Coral Reef Research Foundation (CRRF), recorded wildfires in Babeldaob were almost all caused by human action such as arson, burning trails for hunting, land-clearing by farmers, and burning brush piles and land boundaries. But experts believe that these fires, which have the increased threat of spreading during the dry season, contribute to erosion, sedimentation, and landslides, and pose a significant threat to biodiversity.
Open burning requires a special permit from the Environmental Quality Protection Board (EQPB). However, many fires in Babeldaob are believed to be started without permits, and the Network stressed that people should report burning of land and foliage when they see it.
This past April, the MOJ issued a press release requesting that everyone, regardless of having a permit or not, refrain from starting fires, due to the high winds and dry foliage were causing wildfire outbreaks throughout Babeldaob.

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