Thunderstorms spark more fires in U.S. Northwest, causing a death

PORTLAND Wed Aug 13, 2014 2:55pm EDT

PORTLAND (Reuters) - Severe thunderstorms that rolled through the Pacific Northwest overnight sparked dozens of new wildfires in parched forests in Washington and Oregon, while heavy rain led to flooding and the drowning death of one person, officials said Wednesday.

In much of Oregon, the air was so dry that the Tuesday night rainfall evaporated before hitting the ground, allowing lightning and winds to start and fuel fires, said Jean Nelson-Dean, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Lightning struck Oregon more than 7,000 times in 24 hours, starting scores of mostly small new blazes, according to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center.

"We'll continue to have reports of new fires, and our goal is to keep them under control," Nelson-Dean said.

The Rogue River Drive Fire, triggered on Monday in southern Oregon, grew to 600 acres on Wednesday morning and was threatening about 130 homes, fire officials said.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber issued a state conflagration emergency for the area, a move one step below a state of emergency, freeing state resources to battle the blaze.

In the state's northwest, where rain did reach the ground, the Sandy River rose several feet in a short amount of time late on Tuesday, washing out a bridge and stranding 23 hikers, according to the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office.

A 35-year-old man was swept away, and was later found dead, a statement said.

The other hikers were rescued and uninjured.

To the north, in Washington state, a heavy band of rain and thunderstorms set records for hourly rainfall in some areas around Seattle, and led to reports of street flooding across the Western part of the state.

The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport received nearly 1.1 inches of rain in six hours early on Wednesday, more than the average monthly rainfall of 0.88 inches for August, forecasters said.

In the city of Bellevue, heavy rain flooded a major roadway, leaving cars stranded in four feet of standing water, Bellevue police said.

In Eastern Washington, near the city of Spokane, an intense dust storm known as a haboob preceded thunderstorms, reducing visibility to zero.

Several car crashes were reported amid the low visibility, according to local TV station KHQ.

(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood in Portland and Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Sandra Maler)