LAVA HOT SPRINGS, Idaho - The nation's worst fire season in more than a decade has struck the West like a storm, with new blazes forcing hundreds of evacuations and pillars of reeking smoke prompting health alerts.
''This is not something that's going to be over next week,'' warned Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, who met with fire strategists at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise before leaving to tour fire lines.
Nearly 50 large fires were burning early Thursday across more than 700,000 acres in Texas and the West. Nearly 3.6 million acres have burned in the United States this season, the most since at least the late 1980s.
The fires have stretched resources so thin that federal officials are considering bringing in crews from Mexico and technical experts from Australia. The government is spending $15 million a day to support 20,000 civilian and military firefighters from 46 states and Canada. Some are working 36-hour shifts - or longer.
''We face a very serious and difficult firefighting situation across the western United States,'' said Jim Lyons, an undersecretary at the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service.
He said current Western weather patterns - dry and hot with the potential for lightning - are ideal for fires. He likened the situation to that outlined in ''The Perfect Storm,'' a book about a storm-hurricane combination that struck the East Coast in 1991 with deadly consequences.
Forecasters say the kind of weather needed to change the conditions may not occur in the West until October.
Late Wednesday, fires forced people out of more than 300 homes south of Helena, Mont., and in the Bitterroot Valley, in southwestern Montana along the Idaho line.
Ravalli County officials declared a health alert because of smoke from fires in the scenic valley and Idaho. The Bitterroot and Helena national forests, covering more than a million acres of western Montana, were closed to the public.
''It's that serious,'' said Tom Clifford, the Helena National Forest supervisor. ''We continue to break on the average two to three new fires per day.''
More bad news came from California: Four firefighters were burned Wednesday as they battled one of several blazes that have blackened some 83,000 acres of timber and brush. Two of the injured were in serious condition and the others were in fair condition.
California crews did make progress against some blazes, though a fire that began on the Pachenga Indian reservation southeast of Temecula grew to 5,200 acres.
''It's real, real steep out there and the terrain is heavy, heavy brush that hasn't burned in a long, long time - about a hundred years,'' said fire spokesman Iral Evans.
Smoke from dozens of fires in Utah hung over the Wasatch Front, obscuring the mountains around Salt Lake City and prompting references to Los Angeles-like smog. The smoke boosted ozone concentrations in Salt Lake City to its highest level since 1989.
''I don't remember it ever being like this,'' 15-year resident Kib Jacobson said as he walked downtown. The state issued its fifth consecutive ''No Drive Day'' for Thursday.
Fire crews in eastern Idaho got a brief respite Wednesday as helicopters arrived to fight a complex of 11 fires burning nearly 200,000 acres of steep rugged terrain.
Crews managed to stop the flames threatening houses near the southeastern Idaho resort community of Lava Hot Springs, but the fire wasn't fully contained.
''We could do this and box this in and be free and get another tonight and then start all over,'' said Bill Brandau, an Arizona-based firefighter. ''We're not out of the woods yet.''
Fires have burned more than 20,000 acres in Wyoming in the past week. In the state's northwest corner, near Jackson, a 2,000-acre fire forced 200 people to evacuate. Among them was Barbara Hetherington of Corona, Calif., who left her family's cabin near Jackson with two grandsons.
''It was quite a horrific sight to see the flames leaping all over the place,'' she said.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Associated Press Writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Fire Information Center: http://www.nifc.gov
Forest Service links: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/links2.shtml