Already this year, the Ute Park and the Spring Creek Fires have become synonymous with ashen skies and widespread destruction.
But hidden in their names is a clue about each: their place of origin.
Unlike hurricanes, wildfires are not named from a predetermined list. They are named by officials, who choose names based on “a geographical location, local landmark, street, lake, mountain, peak, etc.,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
Why name a fire?
Officials said that quickly coming up with a label provides firefighters another way to locate the blaze and allows officials to track and prioritize incidents by name. A Twitter hashtag that identified the devastating fires in San Diego in 2007 — #sandiegofire — proved useful as people used it to organize information about road closures and evacuations, officials said.
In most cases, the dispatch center sending the initial resources to a wildfire gets to name it, but sometimes that task falls to the first fire personnel on the scene, officials said. What they name it — well, that is up to them.
“You could have a fire by a landfill — and they might call it the Dump Fire,” Heather Williams, a Cal Fire spokeswoman said. “Sometimes the names come through and it’s like, ‘Really guys?’”
Some high-profile examples
Perhaps no fire in recent memory is as infamous as the Cedar Fire in San Diego County in 2003. One of the largest wildland fires in California history, it was named after the Cedar Creek Falls area where it ignited.
That is more or less how the naming process works. The City of Berkeley Fire of 1923 was, perhaps unsurprisingly, located in Berkeley; the same goes for the destructive blazes like the Bel Air Fire of 1961 and the Redwood Valley Fire in October 2017.
Even names that would seem to have little to do with geography often tie back to location somehow. The 2007 Witch Fire, which destroyed about 1,650 structures, had nothing to do with sorcery but it did originate in an area of San Diego County known as Witch Creek.
What’s with the odd names?
As with any rule, there are exceptions.
Ms. Williams conceded that the more remote the area, the harder it is to come up with a good name. Fires sparked by lightning, in particular, can pose a challenge, she said. In those cases, officials may simply use the coordinates on a map grid to name a fire something like “R-15.”
Most of those peculiar names, though, go under the radar.
“Twenty to 30 fires start on a given day,” Ms. Williams said, speaking about Cal Fire’s jurisdiction. “Only a handful reach the point that the public knows about them.”
For instance, during the summer of 2015, there were so many fires, officials named one in southeast Idaho “Not Creative,” according to reports. A spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Lands rationalized the choice to NPR, saying the name was selected after a long day of firefighting and after officials realized there were no significant landmarks nearby.
Then there is the 416 Fire. The blaze, which has blackened more than 50,000 acres in Colorado since June, was named by the Durango Interagency Dispatch Center after its “system-generated number,” officials explained. The conflagration was the 416th “incident” in the San Juan National Forest — where the dispatch center is — this year, officials said.
Can a name be used more than once?
Yes. It is possible that multiple fires will ignite at the same time, in the same area — perhaps even in the same canyon.
In December, during the fire siege that engulfed California, the blaze that came to be known as the Lilac Fire in San Diego County was actually the fifth one to be given that name, Ms. Williams said.
And remember that devastating Cedar Fire in San Diego from 2003? Another blaze — this one about 29,000 acres and in California’s Kern County — was given the same name 13 years later.
Does this work the same way for hurricanes?
No. The process of naming hurricanes is much more complicated. An international panel of meteorologists actually names the storms years in advance.
Meteorologists use six lists of alphabetically arranged female and male names, which are used in rotation. (The 2018 list will be used again in 2024.) But if a storm is so destructive that using its name again would seem insensitive, a committee can remove the name from the list and select a replacement. For instance, Katrina will not be used again.
The World Meteorological Organization said the names are never in reference to a particular person. Instead, the group said, the names are meant to be “familiar to the people in each region” because, just like with fires, the point is for the public to be able to remember them.