How wildfires get their names: ever wondered?

The 36 Pit is a numbered, out-of-use rock quarry in the Mount Hood National Forest

A Oregon Department of Forestry spokesperson puts his hand on the map showing the area of the 36 Pit Fire in Mount Hood National Forest near Estacada, Sept. 16, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
A Oregon Department of Forestry spokesperson puts his hand on the map showing the area of the 36 Pit Fire in Mount Hood National Forest near Estacada, Sept. 16, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN 6) — Ever heard about a wildfire — Two Bulls, Beaver, 1,2,3 Complex, Onion Mountain, Sisters — and wondered how it got its name? You’re not alone.

Wildfires are named based on geography — usually. That’s about as hard and fast a rule as can be applied, said Oregon Department of Forestry Information Officer Rod Nichols.

“It’s kind of a folklore method,” he said. “It really is sort of spontaneous.”

They’re usually named for familiar landmarks, but not always, he said.

How the 36 Pit Fire got its name

The 36 Pit is a numbered, out-of-use rock quarry in the Mount Hood National Forest, said USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region spokesperson Glen Sachet. Crews dug and created a rock quarry for a project, but it hasn’t been used. When crews first responded to the fire, that was the nearest landmark.

Rock was likely needed for a road construction, or forestry project Sachet said. All quarries in the Mount Hood National Forest are numbered.

Geography

Generally speaking, crews will take the closest geographical location to the fire that has yet to be used to name a fire.

For instance, if you say “Cripple Creek fire” anybody in the area will know what you’re talking about, but most people outside the area won’t. What matters, says Nichols, is that people in the area know.

When a crew arrives at the scene of a fire, be it big, small, raging or smoldering, the decision to name the fire is made by the fire manager at the scene. Typically, this is the incident commander. But, not always.

Sachet said all reported fires are named, even if only by numbers. For instance, after a lighting storm, the small blazes will be numbered based on GPS points, but if they grow, the fire will likely get a geographical name.

Fires can have the same name

Nichols said, a fire occurred in the same place as the Bland Mountain fire in Southwest Oregon. That fire was named the Bland Mountain 2 fire. The one after that? The Bland Mountain 3 fire.

Fires can also change names. One summer, the Florence Fire was deterring tourists from the town of Florence, Ore., although it was not threatening the town itself.

“So, they changed the name to the Biscuit fire” said Nichols. Sometimes, fires will grow together and the name will be changed.

“We’ll name a fire and once the name has been picked up, it’s already familiar.”

Fires getting named. If we have a large lightning bust and there’s multiple fires, they’ll often just get numbered.

As it grows, the number will change.

Milepost names 

One would assume that fires containing the word “Milepost” would be named for spots on a road. But again, not always.

One year, fires in John Day Oregon were sparked along a railroad, and the Oregon Department of Forestry named them for the mileposts on the railroad, Nichols said.

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