Clinton flies in as firefighters await more blazes in the burning West

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The Independent US

With almost one million acres of forest and mountain scrubland on fire across the American West, new army units and thousands of volunteer firefighters descended on the affected areas yesterday in an effort to combat the country's worst outbreak of summer blazes in half a century.

With almost one million acres of forest and mountain scrubland on fire across the American West, new army units and thousands of volunteer firefighters descended on the affected areas yesterday in an effort to combat the country's worst outbreak of summer blazes in half a century.

A battalion of field artillery from Fort Hood in Texas arrived in central Idaho just 24 hours ahead of President Bill Clinton, who will talk to national fire coordination officials in the state capital, Boise, today and have lunch with firefighters right in the thick of it in the nearby Payette National Forest.

After a weekend of dry lightning strikes and new fires breaking out along the Rockies from Montana to northern California, the firefighting effort enjoyed something of a minor reprieve in the latter part of Sunday and early yesterday.

"It was a break-even day for us, more or less," a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center said. "Large fires in Montana continued to burn actively, but elsewhere, initial attack held its own." Such luck is unlikely to last, however.

Already yesterday, winds gusting at up to 25 miles per hour were forecast in Montana and Idaho, and weather forecasters were predicting a flurry of thunderstorms - without much rain to temper the lightning strikes - in a broad swath from southern Oregon to western Montana. An outbreak of new big fires is predicted for tomorrow and Thursday. As the fires have spread, volunteers from all walks of life - notably farmworkers - have undergone a week-long emergency training programme and then been shipped up to fire areas in large buses.

Specialist fire crews have been drafted in from Canada and Mexico and the army and air force have sent in personnel to help both on the ground and with the supply of tanker aircraft that are capable of dropping fire-retardant on the worst-hit areas.

No major population centres have been hit yet, and there have been no deaths. But some tourist spots, such as Jackson Hole in Wyoming, have fires raging less than 20 miles away. The Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, site of some ancient Indian cliff dwellings, has been forced to close.

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