‘Handle’ on fire – How do blazes such as the recent ‘Waterfall’ get their titles? | TheUnion.com

‘Handle’ on fire – How do blazes such as the recent ‘Waterfall’ get their titles?

Biscuit. Waterfall. Cheddar Cheese.

Such names might not conjure images of flaming destruction, but they are just a few of the many titles given each year to wildfires that char thousands of acres.

Where do these fire names come from?

According to fire officials, first responders generally name wildfires for nearby geographic areas or landmarks, which may or may not be well known to the public.

“So if it’s on a particular road, mountain top or drainage, we use that,” said Tahoe National Forest spokeswoman Ann Westling. “The fire (last week) east of Washington was near Maybert Road, and that’s why it was called the Maybert Fire.”

Naming wild-land blazes after areas or landmarks “gives you a pretty good idea of where it is without even looking at a map, if you’re local,” said Spike Newby, Nevada County Consolidated Fire Department battalion chief.

Some get names that are bit crazy, “like the Oh No Fire years ago in Shasta County,” Newby said. “There used to be a little town up there called Oh No.”

And then there was the Gopher Fire near Downieville, which U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said was named because “every once in a while, we get a little bit clever.”

Mathes said the blaze got its name from a guy who was lighting newspapers in gopher holes to get rid of the critters. What he actually got was a full-blown forest fire, instead.

“Generally, the first fire team on the scene has the naming rights,” Mathes said.

He said the fire crews try to avoid duplication and anything offensive or risqué, so you likely will not hear about a blaze called The Bikini Underwear Fire.

According to an Associated Press story from 2002, The Cheddar Cheese Fire of 1984 in Colorado was named after the box of cheddar cheese crackers in the pocket of the first firefighter there.

Usually, fires are named “for clarity and communications,” said Tony Clarabut, chief for the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “If we have multiple fires going, we can distinguish them.”

Clarabut said the Waterfall Fire near Carson City last week started in the vicinity of a waterfall and the famous 49er Fire of 1988 that burned from North San Juan almost to Beale Air Force Base actually was not named for the Gold Rush Era settlers. It was named because it started next to Highway 49, Clarabut said.

Sometimes, fires get names that are changed.

The Biscuit Fire of 2002 burned almost a half-million acres in southwest Oregon and was a complex of five lightning fires that burned together, one of which started on Biscuit Creek, said Tom Lavagnino of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

It lasted 117 days and was originally called The Florence Fire because one of the five lightning blazes was on Florence Creek.

“But then the city of Florence objected because they were getting tourist cancellations (for coastal accommodations),” Lavagnino said. “People thought the city of Florence was burning down, so in midstream, The Florence Fire turned into The Biscuit Fire.”

The Associated Press said 14 firefighters died in the 1994 South Canyon Fire, one of the worst losses of fire personnel in U.S. history. It was renamed The Storm King Fire to acknowledge the mountain where the crew died.

Back in the 1800s, Midwestern fires were named after entire states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In 1881, The Michigan Fire burned 1 million acres in the state of that name. The Wisconsin Fire burned several million acres in that state.

Tornadoes and floods rarely have names because of their quick nature, according to the Web site http://www.weatherworks.com.

Earthquakes take on geographical area names such as the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, which occurred near Mount Loma Prieta and Santa Cruz, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Hurricanes are given names to keep track of them, but they are no longer named just for women in a world that now knows better. Hurricanes usually take just one name such as Fausto or Zeke, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Memorable fire names at a glance

Waterfall Fire (2004)

Location: Carson City, Nev.

Named for: A waterfall near the fire’s origin.

Biscuit Fire (2002)

Location: Oregon

Named for: Biscuit Creek

49er Fire (1988)

Location: San Juan Ridge

Named for: Highway 49

Cheddar Cheese Fire (1984)

Location: Colorado

Named for: Crackers in a firefighter’s pocket

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