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Rain, cooler temperatures ease wildfire threat in U.S. Northwest

By Courtney Sherwood

PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - Lower temperatures and scattered rain brought a reprieve Thursday to the wildfire-scorched U.S. Northwest, where firefighters said they hoped to regain control of blazes that had flared during extreme heat this week.

Four major fires in Oregon were fully contained early Thursday and mandatory evacuations have been lifted statewide, said Carol Connolly, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

But eight large wildfires continue to burn and air quality remains somewhat worse than normal in eastern Oregon near the Idaho border, she said.

"We got over 6,000 lightning strikes in the past 24 hours," Connolly said. "But temperatures are a little cooler than they have been, and most fires received a little precipitation over the last day."

The Rowena Fire in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, which threatened hundreds of homes and prompted a highway closure and evacuations, is now 100 percent contained, officials said.

Last week, federal officials named it the nation's top firefighting priority because of its proximity to a populated area.

The wildfire season on the U.S. West Coast, which runs from May to October, has already been one of the worst on record, with much of California and parts of Oregon and Washington hit by drought.

Rain in the Pacific Northwest this week helped slow the growth of some blazes, although lightning triggered many others, according to fire officials.

In Washington state, the Chiwaukum Complex burning near the Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth in the eastern Cascade Mountains had scorched about 14,000 acres but overnight rain aided containment, according to the Washington Incident Management team.

"Fuels remain very moist; however, fire danger still exists. Lightning may have ignited new fires which could show up over the next several days," a statement said.

Crews were also on alert as high temperatures and steady winds were forecast to return to Northern California, Oregon and Washington beginning Friday.

(Additional reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Daniel Wallis and James Dalgleish)

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