That scenario sounds like hyperbolic doomsaying, but according to a November 1999 U.S. Forest Service report called "Fuels Risk Assessment of Blowdown in the BWCA and Adjacent Lands," it's not. The rate of fuel loading—that is, the accumulation of dry, dead wood on the forest floor—quadrupled from a typical five to 20 tons per acre to 60 to 80 tons last July, after a gale-force wind ripped through a 30-mile-long-by-eight-mile-wide swath of the conservation area, turning an estimated 25 million trees into tinder.
Locals who rely on the tourist economy and proprietors of resorts lining the 63-mile Gunflint Trail road, the area hardest hit by last year's storm, add yet another level of controversy. Wary that increased media attention will turn away many of the 200,000 canoeists and outdoorsmen who visit the area each year, they're pressuring the Forest Service not to overplay the risk. "This isn't an atomic bomb that will spread over ten to 20 miles in a couple of seconds," insists Dick Smith, owner of Gunflint Pines Resort and Campgrounds.
The conflicting agendas place the Forest Service in "a very hard place," says Superior National Forest spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach. Unfortunately, the stopgap solutions—setting up evacuation routes, discussing fire bans, and distributing reams of fire-prevention literature to visitors—are likely to be ineffectual in a place one expert judges to be the most flammable area of its size in the United States. Perhaps Tom Westby best sums up the situation: "If we have a dry spring, we're going to be in a world of hurt."