* Weekly jobless claims fall 19,000
* Claims lowest in nearly 8-1/2 years
* Continuing claims lowest since June 2007
WASHINGTON, July 24 (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level in nearly 8-1/2 years last week, suggesting the labor market recovery was gaining traction.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 284,000 for the week ended July 19, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
That was the lowest level since February 2006, and confounded economists' expectations for a rise to 308,000.
The data provided further confirmation that the labor market is tightening. Employment has grown by more than 200,000 jobs in each of the last five months, a stretch not seen since the late 1990s.
"This is consistent with another payroll reading for July, but it will probably not be as strong as June," said Sam Bullard, senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
U.S. stock index futures held on to slight gains after the data, while the dollar erased losses versus a basket of currencies. Prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell and yields on the 30-year bond hit session highs.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen cautioned last week that the Fed could raise interest rates sooner and more rapidly than currently envisioned if the labor market continued to improve faster than anticipated by policymakers.
Economists currently do not expect the U.S. central bank to start raising interest rates before the second half of 2015. The Fed, which is wrapping up its monthly bond buying program, has kept overnight lending rates near zero since December 2008.
"The Federal Reserve will look at this (jobless claims data) as a favorable development for the jobs market as they look toward timing for normalizing monetary policy," Bullard said.
While jobless claims tend to be volatile around this time of the year, when automakers shut down plants for retooling, a Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors influencing the state level data.
The four-week average of claims, considered a better gauge of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 7,250 to 302,000, the lowest level since May 2007.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 8,000 to 2.50 million in the week ended July 12, the lowest level since June 2007.
The so-called continuing claims data covered the household survey week from which the unemployment rate is calculated.
Continuing claims fell 68,000 between the June and July survey periods, suggesting the unemployment rate could decline from near a six-year low of 6.1 percent.
The unemployment rate for people receiving jobless benefits was unchanged at 1.9 percent for the week ended July 12.
The decline in continuing claims indicates some long-term unemployed Americans are finding jobs, a key metric for Fed policymakers.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)