How wildfires get their (sometimes strange) names

How wildfires get their (sometimes strange) names

16 July 2012

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USA – CHEYENNE — Wildfires are no laughing matter, but the names they go by can be a different case altogether.

While most wildfires have fairly typical names, some can be confusing or even downright bizarre. That leaves a bemused public wondering when they read or hear about them in media reports.

This fire season already has seen some whimsical names in the Rocky Mountain West, such as the Bear Cub fire in the Teton National Forest; the Squirrel Creek fire in the Medicine Bow National Forest; and the Treasure fire near Leadville, Colo.

But farther away, fires have taken on stranger names, such as the C fire in Idaho, the Comet fire in Arizona and even the Dad fire in North Carolina.

But where do these names come from?

“What happens is, the first firefighter on scene with communications names the fire,” said Greg Bauer, fire chief for Laramie County Fire District 1. “What they’re doing is taking command. So say we have a motor accident on I-25 at mile marker 4. The officer who arrives on scene will indicate that is ‘Mile Marker 4’ command.”

The same thing goes for fires, Bauer said, adding that he has named a few himself during his career.

But since most fires typically start in isolated wilderness or forests, firefighters have to refer to other geographic features when naming them.

Aaron Voos with the U.S. Forest Service at the Medicine Bow National Forest, said firefighters tend to select the closest geographic feature rather than the most well-known.

That, he said, is to avoid confusion in the event other fires break out in the same area.

“That’s one of the first things they come up with because they want to make it very clear on where they want people to go,” Voos said.

“In the North Laramie Range, where we’ve had three major fires this year, we could’ve easily named all three of those the ‘Laramie Peak fire.’ They just try to be a little more specific.”

He said the Squirrel Creek fire was named after a drainage basin close to its point of origin. The Arapaho fire, which has burned nearly 100,000 acres in the Medicine Bow National Forest, was named after a creek and a trail that shared the same name.

“I would say the vast majority of fires are named after some geographic landmark,” he added.

But even when firefighters do abide by that guideline, it can still cause confusion to people who aren’t aware of the geography.

A good example would be the C fire, a fairly small fire burning 10 miles east of Donnelly, Idaho. According to Mark Regan with Incident Management Team 7 of the Western Great Basin, that fire got its name from C-402, a backcountry dirt road.

“It’s just this dirt road that people call ‘the C road,’” Regan said. “So the locals named the fire after it when they got on scene because everyone here knows that road.”

Likewise, the Comet fire, which burned part of the Tanto National Forest in Arizona, was not started by a comet. Rather, it was named for nearby Comet Peak, said local Forest Service public affairs officer Paige Rocket.

Yet not all wildfires are named after geographic features. The Dad fire in the Croatan National Forest of North Carolina was given its name because it was first reported on Father’s Day.

Scott Molinari at the Fort Collins (Colo.) Interagency Dispatch Center said firefighters used to be much less orthodox about naming fires, going so far as to name them after ex-girlfriends or somebody they didn’t like.

Yet even now, he said, fire names can come from the strangest places.

“If it’s not really serious, we have a little fun with it,” Molinari said. “I once named a fire near a place called Pleasant Valley, and I called it the ‘Pleasant fire’ just so I could be called the Pleasant incident commander.”

Molinari recalled another fire known as the “Lightbulb,” so named after a comment made by the first responder.

“The person who was calling it in suddenly said, ‘Hold on, I’ve got a great idea,’” he said. “So it became the Lightbulb, even though there was no Lightbulb Creek or anything like that in the area.”

While they’re generally harmless, Molinari said wildfire names can sometimes cause problems.

He recalled one year when a dispatcher named a fire after a nearby ski resort, only to have the resort call in and complain about the negative association.

In 1994, he said, a fire burning near Glenwood Springs, Colo., was initially dubbed “the South Canyon fire.” But shortly thereafter, fire personnel realized the fire was actually closer to Storm King Mountain. To this day the fire is often referred to as the Storm King fire despite its initial designation.

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