Western U.S. states brace for more lightning-sparked wildfires

PORTLAND Ore. Mon Aug 11, 2014 5:43pm EDT

PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - Dozens of new wildfires could break out across U.S. west coast states on Monday and into Tuesday, officials warned, just as crews begin to get a handle on conflagrations that have burned more than 500,000 acres in California, Washington and Oregon.

Several dozen major fires still threaten more than 1,000 homes in the three states, and heavy smoke poses a threat to people with breathing difficulties in several communities, fire officials said.

The National Weather Service said on Monday that dry thunderstorms, which bring lightning but little rain, are likely to spark new fires across a tinder-dry region that has been suffering severe drought.

That prompted weather officials to place all of Oregon, two thirds of Washington and much of northern California under a red flag warning on Monday, meteorologist Shawn Weagle said, meaning conditions are ripe for wildfire ignition and rapid propagation.

In California, two fires in the Klamath National Forest are threatening 794 homes and about 90 commercial buildings, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group said on Monday. The so-called Lodge Lightning complex of blazes is threatening another 60 structures in Mendocino County, it said.

Evacuations have been lifted in Shasta County, where the Eiler Fire destroyed seven residences, two businesses and 14 other buildings, officials said.

Crews are gaining the upper hand against the most threatening fires across the state, said Dennis Mathisen, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.

"We are holding personnel beyond their normal shifts to make sure we are in position to attack if there are more fires from lightning," Mathisen said.

In eastern and central Washington, about 10 wildfires are threatening as many as 1,000 homes, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Firefighters fear winds forecast on Monday could fan blazes, including the Devil's Elbow Complex, a series of four wildfires on the Colville Indian Reservation in northeastern Washington that has charred over 17,000 acres during the past week.

"Fuels have been extremely dry and they are going to be even drier today," a spokesman for the fire crews said.

At Oregon's 5 Mile Fire, the risk of damage to a major power transmission line had passed on Monday morning. But firefighters had to halt air operations temporarily because of thick smoke, and they warned people with breathing problems to stay indoors.

(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood; Additional reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jim Loney)

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