How Wildfires Get Their Names

The story of Burnt Bread and Dirty Face.

In a report on the wildfires spreading through Southern California, the Los Angeles Times refers to the blazes by name—for example, the “Sayre,” “Freeway Complex,” and “Tea” fires. Back in 2005, Daniel Engber explained how wildfires get their names. The article is reprinted below.

Firefighters in the Pacific Northwest continued to battle the 49,000-acre “School” fire over the weekend. They’ve also been busy trying to contain the “Burnt Bread” fire in north-central Washington and the “Dirty Face” fire to the southeast. How do wildfires get their names?

From local landmarks, mostly. The School fire started around School Canyon in Washington, the Burnt Bread fire got its name from the nearby Sourdough Drainage, and Dirty Face burned on the south slope of Dirty Face Mountain near Washington’s Lake Wenatchee *. In general, naming rights go to the group that makes the “initial attack” on a fire, whether it’s a squadron of local firefighters or a team from the U.S. Forest Service. (In contrast, every tropical storm in the Atlantic gets its name from a single organization.) The commander on the scene often uses a nearby geographical feature to describe the fire, but he’s not bound by any official rules. He first suggests a name to the interagency fire dispatcher, who passes it along in fire reports, dispatches, and so on.

Three years ago, firefighters named a Pacific Northwest blaze the Sour Biscuit fire because it was near Sourdough Gulch and Biscuit Creek. It later became part of the much larger Florence fire, which started near the Florence Creek. But authorities backtracked when the mayor of Florence—an unrelated town 100 miles away—complained about the bad publicity. The Florence fire became the Biscuit fire.

Dispatchers can stop the spread of an unfortunate name at the outset. They might tell a commander if the title he’s chosen sounds too similar to another that’s already in use. The Tree fire would be OK on its own, but not if there’s a Green fire burning nearby. In places where there are few landmarks to choose from, dispatchers sign off on sequels; one fire might be called Clear Creek and another Clear Creek 2. Multiple fires burning in the same general area are often referred to as a “complex.” The whole set is typically referred to by a single name, like the Blossom Complex fire in Oregon or the Long Black Complex fire in Idaho.

There have been more than 42,000 unplanned wildfires in 2005, of which only the smallest remain anonymous. Not every one of the huge number of labels assigned each year has to do with geographical location. A firefighter told the Explainer that he once named a little fire “Samantha,” in honor of his daughter.

Each fire also gets an alphanumeric code used by both local and national firefighting agencies. These typically consist of a two-letter state abbreviation, followed by a three-letter locality and a three-digit fire number. The School fire, for example, is also known as WA-UMF-130. That’s the 130th fire (130) to occur at the Umatilla National Forest (UMF) in Washington State (WA).

Explainer thanks Rose Davis of the National Interagency Fire Center, Eric Helpenstell of Pacific Wildfire, and Jeree Mills of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Correction, Aug. 16, 2005: Due to an editing error, this piece originally and incorrectly stated that Dirty Face Mountain was located in Umatilla National Forest in southeast Washington. It’s on the north side of Lake Wenatchee, closer to the center of the state. Return to the corrected sentence.