Another Perspective

By Any Other Name

We know who names hurricanes. But what about forest fires?

By 9.29.06

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While we await the latest secret intelligence estimate to be revealed, here is another mystery the media may wrestle to the ground: whose responsibility is it to give wildfires their names?

We are told that the media favorite, the "Day" fire north of Los Angeles, has burned more than 159,000 acres, including two abandoned barns that provide a forlorn background for the numerous "stand-ups" that breathless reporters deliver as they recount the "Day" fire's progress. They usually explain that the barns in ashes are the only building casualties so far. Gee, that sounds like a lot of acreage unless you consider another fire that burned for weeks in Montana where stand-ups and video crews are harder to come by. I refer to the "Derby" fire that scorched more than 208,000 acres, destroyed 29 houses and several outbuildings in a region some 70 miles southwest of Billings. Nearby was another fire designated the "Jungle" fire that ate a piddling 29,000 acres. By all accounts this has been the worst fire season in many years for the western states.

Ask who is the designated person or agency that gives these fires their names, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or who and you draw blanks. A Montana source in the forest arena can tell you how the fires in that region come by their monikers, however. There is a "Derby Mountain" in the area of the Derby Fire; there is a "Jungle Creek" (make that "crick") where the Jungle fire raged, and as for the Red Waffle Fire, a mere 10,000 acre blaze, there is "Red Pryor Mountain" and one of the firefighters first to arrive had waffles for breakfast that morning. But who decides on the names that appear on the government sites that tell you how many acres are gone and what percent of containment is estimated and the stages of evacuations effective in the regions? Names inscribed on the official records of government?

By dint of great effort I can tell you the genealogy of California's "Day" fire. A knowledgeable source in the Los Padres Forest information office says it is the "Day" fire because it started on Labor Day! Not the Labor Day fire because there were two fires started that day and the first one was named "Labor." And now the answer to the other question: who decides? In the California case at least, it is the dispatch office of the Angeles National Forest that names the fires. This is a fairly new procedure. Up until a couple of years ago, the honor of bequeathing the name fell to the "incident commander" at the fire scene.

You now are possessed of knowledge not yet contained in any National Intelligence Estimate. Guard it well, even under Guantanamo-like persuasion. And for God's sake, don't tell Novak.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.