ASU Professor Dr. Stephen Pyne on Arizona Fire Season: Who Names Fires?

The Sunflower Fire in Tonto National Forest
The Sunflower Fire in Tonto National Forest
Andrew Pielage

Wildfire season is in full swing in Arizona; Four fires are currently burning throughout the state.

The Gladiator Fire has burned almost 10,000 acres and is 5 percent contained, the Bull Flat Fire, in Fort Apache Indian Reservation, is more than 2,000 acres, and is 50 percent contained, the Elwood Fire, in the San Carlos Indian Reservation, covers almost 1,500 acres and is at least 5 percent contained, and and the Sunflower Fire, which has consumed more than 14,000 acre, is 15 percent contained according to fire officials this morning.

Dr. Stephen Pyne, who spent 15 years as a wildland firefighter at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, now teaches at Arizona State University and is an expert on the history and management of fire. We caught up with Pyne to talk about the naming of fires in the United States.

"Different agencies name fires different ways," says Pyne. "The Forest Service traditionally uses a single word taken from a nearby geographic feature. This can seem absurd or idiotic as, for example, with the Wallow fire or Warm fire (Wallow as abbreviated from Bear Wallow and Warm from Warm Springs). When multiple fires occur around the same vicinity, they number them as well - Horseshoe 2 fire, eg. The forest dispatcher usually contributes the name."

Pyne also notes that different agencies have different protocols. "The National Park Service, where I worked (back in the Age of Dirt), let the fire boss (now, incident commander) name the fire, and we could use more than one word. We named fires for any and all reasons."

ASU Professor Dr. Stephen Pyne on Arizona Fire Season: Who Names Fires?

He also discusses the naming of fires in his book, Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter's Season at the Grand Canyon. Pyne writes:

Unlike the Forest Service, which names fires only after existing geographic places, we name fires for any reason. We name after girlfriends. There is a Carol, a Lynn, a Kate fire. When Tom receives a "Dear John" letter, the Shauna fire is redesignated the Disappointment fire. When Stone wants to name a second, larger lire after Carol, we name it after the great Carolinian, Charlemagne. We name fires for events or natural phenomena. There are Morning, Sunrise, Evening, Star, Sandy, and Rainbow fires. When everyone from 176 goes to a fire, it becomes the 176 fire. When the Cosmic Cowboys vow to "return by 7:00 P.M." that evening, they hurry to the BB7 (Back By 7).

A fire on the Fourth of July becomes the Independence fore. The first fires of the year take names like Shakedown, Preamble, Prologue, Kickoff, Inauguration. When the season opener, long delayed, appears at Cape Final, it becomes the Finally fire. Closing fires take names like Farewell, Epilogue, So Long, 10-7, Adiós. A crew birder names fires after grosbeaks, ilickers, and owls; a physicist names them for high-energy accelerators like SLAC and CERN; a Mexican-food devotee gives us the Taco, Frijole, and Enchilada fires. No one has ever found the Phantom fire. The Poltergeist withstands three attempts before it is ultimately located.

 

The Phoenix fire occurs on the site of an old burn. A wrong compass bearing leads to the Miss fire. A crewman whose last name is DeForrest gives us the DeForrest fire. The punning impulse yields the Sure fire, Cross fire, Cease ñre, Balza fire. A lire that has cases of rations but no tools becomes the Porker fire. When Sonja and Tim smell smoke while driving to a project near Cape Royal, then follow the odor to an unreported fire, we have a Sniffer fire. A reeking burn in deep duff becomes the Odoriferous fire. A ñre north of Point Imperial evolves into the Emperor fire. When Dave and Ralph have to share a single sleeping bag, we have a Honeymoon fire. The growth rings on a burning date it to 1687, the year of Newton's Principia Mathematica, so we have a Principia fire. Since it looks as if it could be the start of something, a fire in the Iron Triangle becomes the Genesis fire. Sonja and Fran have a Femme Fatale Becker and Stiegelmeyer, a BS a second trip to Atoko Point by Alston yields the Atokotwo ñre. There are Funky, Whoopie, Pits, Booga Booga, and Far Out lires.

The Dancing Pole lire results when Lenny-a Polish kid from Syracuse-tries to make a Sterno burner out of saw mix and a hot ration can, only to have the mix ignite and spread to his plastic quart canteen; when he is unable to blow it out, he drops it to the ground and tries to stomp on it, misses the ílaming head, and strikes the canteen, which shoots out a ten-foot llame and sets fire to his boot, which he tries to beat out with his other boot, resulting in a jig that sends the remainder of the crew into hysterics. The named fires become geodetic points in our collective map of the Rim.

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For updated information on the current fires in Arizona, stay tuned to our news blog, Valley Fever.

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