Tri-Cities hit with lightning, brush fires

Thunderstorms that moved through the Mid-Columbia on Sunday evening lit up 911 phone lines and sent firefighters in every direction for smoke and lightning-sparked brush fires.

The chaos started for dispatchers, fire agencies and police at 7:50 p.m., 20 minutes after the National Weather Service in Pendleton issued a weather alert for strong winds and rain.

Just a few hours before the storm hit, dozens of firefighters from around the Mid-Columbia were already busy fighting a fire of smoldering trash inside a Kennewick Waste Management station on Ely Street.

Crews were still on the scene at 10:30 p.m.

The storms quickly blew in, first bringing lightning from Prosser down through Benton County and across the river into Pasco. That was followed by powerful winds, with gusts up to 56 mph.

The biggest fire is believed to have been southwest of Energy Northwest in north Richland. Firefighters got the call at 8:13 p.m., and later reports said the fire had spread across 300 to 400 acres.

However, a lot of the smoke that clouded up skies in the Tri-Cities was from recent fires in Oregon's Jefferson County.

The smoke was reportedly pushed north with the storms. Firefighters in central Oregon on Sunday battled a complex of wildfires that has burned 33,000 acres, The Associated Press reported.

Sunday started out with a number of thunderstorms over the Tri-Cities about 9 a.m.

Crews in Benton and Franklin counties, along with Hanford fire and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, responded to several small fires.

But the mayhem came Sunday evening immediately following the National Weather Service forecast.

At 7:52 p.m., Hanford firefighters responded to a brush fire along Highway 240. It was unclear if that was started by a lightning strike.

That was followed by call-outs for smoke or flame investigations in the Horse Heaven Hills, the Meadow Hills area, Badger Canyon and Badger Mountain and Thompson Hill.

The calls also included Catskill Street in Richland for sparks from power lines, a brush fire at Road 68 and Wrigley Drive in Pasco and smoke near East Ranch Road and North Canal Drive in West Richland.

The storm was expected to intensify through the night for residents of Benton and Franklin counties, along with Walla Walla, Yakima, Klickitat, Umatilla and Morrow counties, according to the National Weather Service report.

Doug Weber, an NWS meteorologist in Pendleton, described it as a low-pressure system that spun off a couple of strong thunderstorms in Sherman and Gilliam counties in northcentral Oregon.

Those became a line of storms upon exiting the area and "put out a strong gust front that went well ahead of the thunderstorms that were happening," he said.

Smoke from fires in Jefferson County moved across the Columbia River in Washington, which is why visibility dropped rapidly Sunday evening, Weber explained.

He compared it to a mini dust storm.

"That's basically what happened was these thunderstorms, along with surface pressure gradients, mixed up the air," he said.

The storms "transferred smoke and dust from the constant dry weather we've had and pushed it out in a giant fan across the Lower Columbia Basin and Eastern Washington."

At 8:30 p.m., Hanford reported a wind gust of 56 mph, while a peak gust of 44 mph hit Kennewick's Vista Field and 30 mph was recorded at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, said Weber, who issued the "giant weather advisory."

The weather today should return to normal for late August, with any "chance of precipitation pretty much gone after sunrise," he said.

Tri-City residents should expect clear skies and high temperatures in the lower 90s.