Virginia Vincent was finishing a dinner of tofu stir fry last Sunday evening in her U.S. Forest Service fire lookout perch high above the Ninemile Valley in western Montana when the storms began forming.

"I watched a small black cloud turn into a big black cloud," Vincent said. "Then all of a sudden one of them picked up and really sparkled."

Those dry lightning storms ignited 50 new fires in the Lolo National Forest, signaling the beginning of what could be "a very active fire season," said Dave Ramirez, a fire management officer on the Ninemile Ranger District, about 30 miles west of Missoula.

"Most of the state is in very high fire danger," he said. "We've been fortunate up to this point in western Montana because we didn't have any lightning storms."

So far this year, more than 1,200 fires in Montana and northern Idaho have burned more than 45,156 acres. Further south in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming where the fire season traditionally begins earlier in the summer, more than 1,800 fires have charred almost 72,000 acres.

This year's fires potentially could cause extreme damage in the region, experts said, as they did in 1988 and 1994, when flames charred millions of acres. But circumstances of the fires this year differ from those blazes.

In those years, there was less than the usual snowpack in the mountains, followed by a dry, warm spring. Last winter dropped greater than average snow, and spring was very cool. But the snows came late in the season, after the logs and other woody debris lying on the forest floor already had frozen.

"There was good moisture, but dry dead fuels," said Dave Goens, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, Mont.

Grasses also greened more slowly in this year's cool spring. "Now we've got the curing of the annual grasses below the 6,000-foot level, along with the dry fuels on the forest floor," Goens said. "We have a potential for an extreme fire season with the dry lightning."

The biggest fire to date in Montana is the Sixmile Fire in the Gallatin National Forest. Since it started on July 30, more than 1,100 acres have been scorched.

Short-term forecasts call for temperatures decreasing to the mid-eighties in western Montana, with the potential for more dry lightning. "There are no major systems in sight to break the back of the fire season," Goens said. "The next two to three weeks will be extremely critical."

Although resources are not yet depleted in the region, they are being stretched, said Dave Custer, foreman at Missoula Smokejumper Base, the launch spot for the firefighters who parachute from planes to reach blazes in remote areas.

"Most of our jumpers are out," Custer said. "We're going to have 12 jumpers from Redmond, Oregon, coming in today. And it wasn't easy getting them because of all the activity in different regions."

The Missoula base is usually staffed with 60 jumpers. Twenty-two were assigned to nine of the fires ignited by Sunday's storms.

Custer warned more fires could pop up in the coming days.

"They're what we call sleepers," he said. "Lightning will often hit a snag or dead tree and will smolder for a few days. Then it will ignite on a hot or windy day. We may be jumping fires a week from now that began last night."

So far, firefighters have been able to control 11 new fires that ignited on the Ninemile Ranger District last Sunday evening, "but it's only a matter of time before we get tapped out of resources," Ramirez said.

If some of the lightning strikes develop into massive fires, Ramirez hopes the experience can be used as a lesson for local residents.

"Rather than the number of fires we should be talking about [controlled] burning," he said. "The fire intensity would be lessened if we could treat" the boundaries near public and private lands with controlled burns in the spring.

"But the program is undermined by people who complain about the smoke."

"They need to learn they have a choice of living with a summer full of smoke, or a little bit of smoke in the spring," Ramirez said.