More than 60 major fires rage across 11 Western states and threaten resorts

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The Independent US

With the American West suffering its worst fire season for half a century, firefighters yesterday continued to battle more than 60 major fires consuming three-quarters of a million acres of forest, scrubland and mountain wilderness.

With the American West suffering its worst fire season for half a century, firefighters yesterday continued to battle more than 60 major fires consuming three-quarters of a million acres of forest, scrubland and mountain wilderness.

Freak dry lightning strikes continued to set blazes in the bone-dry Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges, with little sign of either a shift in the high-pressure zone over the region or of mid-summer thunderstorms strong enough to quell the flames and prevent other fires from breaking out.

Worst affected over the weekend was south-western Montana, where hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes in the Bitterroot Valley, a popular tourist and fishing destination near Missoula, now afflicted with 16 separate fires.

One single fire on the Idaho-Montana border ravaged more than 100,000 acres. Although hardly any buildings have been affected by the blazes so far, the fires are raging perilously close to holiday resorts and clusters of second homes in the mountains - the immediate focus of the fire-fighting effort. One area of concern is Jacksonhole, Wyoming, a trendy resort on the edge of the Yellowstone National Park, now besieged by minor fires on several fronts.

Tens of thousands of professional firefighters, volunteers and draftees from the army and air force were engaged in the battle to quell the forces of nature, running up bills of tens of millions of dollars.

President Bill Clinton announced he would visit a handful of affected areas tomorrow, in between election campaign stops on behalf of his designated Democratic successor, Vice-President Al Gore.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said: "The President wanted to just let the firefighters know how much the country appreciates what they are doing."

The fires have hit 11 states so far, and the crisis could continue for as long as two or three months.

Thunderstorms are forecast on the coast of Oregon and Washington state over the next few days, which could mean yet more dry lightning in the mountains.

Idaho's governor, Dick Kempthorne, said: "The conditions will only worsen. We're still in for a hot summer."

In Colorado, a collection of some of the West's most prized archaeological remains were again under threat in the Mesa Verde National Park as a new fire broke out there and quickly spread.

The park, home to some remarkable ancient Indian cliff dwellings, reopened on Friday after a 10-day blaze that scorched more than 20,000 acres, only to close again 12 hours later.

Meanwhile, last week's biggest fire, in California's Sequoia National Forest, was deemed to be 80 per cent under control, freeing some of the hundreds of firefighters stationed there for the past 10 days to be deployed elsewhere.

The seriousness of the fires has been attributed to the particularly dry summer following a couple of wetter years.

Forestry and park officials say the spread of campers and residential home-dwellers into remote areas has made it harder to clear the forest floor of inflammable materials, but hasalso made the task of doing so more pressing.

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