Forget the Marshmallows, Just Run!

Northern Minnesota rangers patrol a tinder-dry disaster area

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

"There will be fires," says Tom Westby, a timber and fire coordinator with Superior National Forest's Gunflint Ranger District. "It's just a matter of how big." If that sounds ominous, it's meant to. Up in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, rangers like Westby aren't just predicting a long, hot summer; they're getting positively biblical. The prophecy? An inferno will sweep through a 200-square-mile area, creating downdrafts of up to 40 mph, scattering burning refuse for miles, and sending smoke billowing 50,000 feet into the atmosphere.

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.

So why hasn't this gargantuan pile of firewood been cleaned up? Call it the Catch-22 clause of the Wilderness Act. In its aim to keep vast tracts of America's woodlands pristine, the Wilderness Act forbids controlled burns and heavy machinery within designated wilderness areas. Firefighters have to apply for a special federal permit if they want to circumvent the rules—and in this case, the requisite studies and public hearings could drag on until the fall of 2001. But even if rangers somehow manage to jump-start the process, the response from environmental purists will likely be loud. "With the Forest Service's rationale, they should just cut down the whole Superior National Forest because it might burn," says Ray Fenner, executive director of the Minnesota-based Superior Wilderness Action Network.

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."