From 30,000 feet, Western Canada looks like a rain forest-an uninterrupted canopy of lush green as far as the eye can see. But as the plane descends, the canopy slowly opens up to reveal the dry, shriveled undergrowth that hides like a flaky scalp beneath a head of shiny hair.
A protracted dry spell throughout the North American West has turned old-growth forests into a vast tinderbox. One spark from a careless camper or a rare electrical storm, and the forests seem to explode. The undergrowth acts as kindling, stoking and spreading the flames. The old pines, towering hundreds of feet above the parched earth, can resist the drought but not the heat. Their long needles blacken instantly, feeding the blaze as it races through the lower branches, spreading unchecked from tree to tree-and then, if the winds are wrong, from house to house.
That's how 250 homes disappeared in Kelowna, the third-largest city in British Columbia. On Aug. 27, five days after they were forced to evacuate, dazed residents of suburban Crawford Estates were only just getting back to what remained of their upscale neighborhood. They huddled in cul-de-sacs, looking past the iron entry gates and yellow police tape to the smoldering ruins beyond. Sometimes a doorway arch was still visible at the top of a sweeping staircase, the house behind it burned to the ground. Chimneys fared well, and the occasional water heater. Almost nothing else was recognizable.
For Kelowna, as for so much of the West, the fires of 2003 are among the worst disasters on record. About 30,000 people-or one-third the population of the city-were forced to evacuate, and more than 5,000 of them were still homeless nearly a week after the fire first reached their town. Some 48,000 acres have been destroyed so far, and the blaze is far from under control. Insurance claims may top $1 billion, making this by far the most devastating fire in Canadian history.
And that's just in Canada. Hundreds of fires throughout the western United States have destroyed more than 2.5 million acres already this summer, and more hot, dry months lie ahead. A single blaze in Arizona consumed 333 buildings, and 27 firefighters have been killed, including eight last weekend. Nearly four dozen major fires are taxing the resources of seven states. Among them:
Two fires near Cody, Wyo., that have destroyed about 17,000 acres of the Shoshone National Forest.
A massive blaze in Yellowstone National Park that burned 23,500 acres and forced the closure of the park's east entrance.
Two fires in Oregon that started on Aug. 19 and have destroyed 39,000 acres-so far. The two fires are burning toward each other and are expected to join and spread, further complicating containment efforts.
Twenty or more fires all across Montana with a total coverage of more than 300,000 acres. Some 8,500 firefighters are working the state, at a cost of nearly $125 million.
Overall, the devastation could exceed last year's record, when wildfires consumed 7 million acres, killed 23 firefighters, destroyed hundreds of homes, and cost the federal government $1.5 billion.
With so many fires in so many places, some in Washington have begun to wonder whether the federal government's forest-management policies have contributed to the problem. "If you're concerned about old growth, large stands of timber, then you better be worried about the conditions that create devastating fires," President Bush said at a speech in Oregon last month after flying over a huge wildfire he described as a "holocaust." "The worst thing that can happen to old stands of timber is these fires. They destroy the big trees. They're so explosive in nature that hardly any tree can survive."
For more than a year, the administration's solution to the wildfire problem has languished in Congress. Called the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Bush plan calls for aggressively thinning some 20 million acres of national forest considered most vulnerable to fire. From low-flying helicopters, experts can identify the most overgrown areas and predict the most likely path of a fire. But acting on that information can take years, thanks to multiple review mechanisms and lawsuits by environmental groups. The administration wants to eliminate some reviews, limit appeals, and require judges to weigh the risk of wildfires when deciding lawsuits.
That appeals even to many Democrats from states prone to wildfire. A bipartisan coalition in the House pushed through the Bush plan in July, but it has not fared as well in the Senate, where liberal lawmakers from the Northeast-a region with no real wildfire problem-have threatened to filibuster. They want to gut the bill's fast-track provisions while loading it down with other environmental goodies, such as a ban on logging in old-growth forests.
To obtain the 60 votes they would need to break a threatened filibuster, Senate Republicans are looking for a few Western Democrats to buck their party on the issue. Barbara Boxer of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon are considered the most likely crossover votes, but so far they're sticking to the environmentalist hard line.
It may take more fires-with more property damage-before such Democrats put the interests of their voters before the interests of big groups like the Sierra Club. Burning forests are one thing, but burning homes can really turn up the political heat.
Back in British Columbia, Greg Hochhalter, the associate pastor of Kelowna's largest evangelical church, says the victims of that city's fire have remained remarkably philosophical throughout their ordeal. For the vast majority, he says, the attitude is: "It's just stuff. We've got each other, and that's what matters."
American voters might not be so understanding-especially if their "stuff" was lost to political posturing as much as to any force of nature.
-with reporting from Shafer Parker in Kelowna, B.C.