Thunder, lightning, and dust storms complicate Western firefighting efforts

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has authorized the state fire marshal to send structural firefighters and equipment to help local fire crews battle a new wildfire that is threatening more than 130 homes in southern Oregon's Jackson County.

The Rogue River Drive Fire between Eagle Point and Shady Cove started Monday and has grown to about 300 acres, the governor's office said Tuesday night.

A storm system that moved through the area Tuesday afternoon helped the fire gain momentum and cross containment lines, a Jackson County sheriff's spokeswoman said.

Both mandatory evacuation notices and less serious advisories have been issued for residents on several roads in the area.

Elsewhere in Oregon, the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center says 7,000 lightning strikes blanketed central Oregon on Tuesday. Fire crews responded to 14 new fires but all were tiny.

In Washington, a massive, dramatic dust storm of the type more often associated with the Southwest blew through Eastern Washington and north Idaho on Tuesday evening in advance of thunderstorms, lightning and rain.

Washington state troopers said the dust storm or "haboob" reduced visibility to zero in parts of Whitman and Adams counties, leading to numerous traffic accidents, especially in the Ritzville area southwest of Spokane.

Washington gets a dust storm like this every couple of years, said Matt Fugazzi, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Spokane. Winds of 40 to 50 mph kicked up a wall of dust in advance of the thunderstorms as the weather front moved up through Eastern Washington and western Idaho and kept heading north, he said.

The effect on Washington's major wildfires wasn't immediately clear late Tuesday.

Four buildings, including one home, were destroyed in a fire that burned across 10 acres in Mead, north of Spokane, shortly after the thunderstorm moved through, KHQ-TV reported. The cause of the fire was not immediately determined.

Fire officials at the Devil's Elbow Fire complex on northeastern Washington's Colville Indian reservation said that after a week, nearly 800 firefighters had encircled the 32-square-mile fire with containment lines. They expected their work to be tested by the winds accompanying Tuesday's new thunder and lightning storms. Residents of more than 30 homes have been told to leave.

Meanwhile, three firefighters who deployed emergency shelters when a thunderstorm whipped up the flames at a Northern California blaze were released unhurt from a hospital Tuesday.

Corey Wilford, a spokesman for the Beaver Fire, said there was no immediate word whether an investigation will be conducted, but they are usual in cases like this. The firefighters' names were not released.

Beaver Fire officials said westerly winds aided firefighters on the fire's western edge on Tuesday, slowing its advance. However, the same winds that slowed it in the west prevented fire crews from working on tactical fire operations on the northeast edge. Those operations were delayed in the mountainous area of Siskiyou County, about 15 miles northwest of Yreka.

About 150 rural homes have been evacuated. The fire was 30 percent contained after burning across 45 square miles of the Klamath National Forest north of the Klamath River.

At a news conference at a fire coordination center in Redding, California, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on Congress to enact legislation allowing federal disaster funds to be spent on the biggest wildfires, and CalFire Chief Ken Pimlott said three years of drought have contributed to explosive fire conditions across Northern California.