How Wildfires Get Their Names

Aug 17, 2015

This story was originally published on August 26, 2013.

So far this year 1,058 wildfires have burned in Idaho, and we've reported on many of them. But with new fires starting every week – sometimes within a few hours –  it’s hard to keep straight which fires are which. Names like the Elk Complex and the Little Queens Fire can seem arbitrary. But are they?

Credit U.S. Forest Service

Roberta Damico is with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. She says each wildfire has its own story, and these stories help inform their name.

“The name is really there to provide folks responding to the fire an easy locator,” says Damico.

Location is key to naming wildfires. When a new blaze is first identified, the agency managing the land will pull out a detailed map. Then, the dispatch or fire manager will pick a nearby landmark – a creek, river drainage or some other point of reference – and will name the fire after it. For example, the Elk Complex that tore through the Fall Creek area earlier this month was named after nearby “Elk Creek.” As you can probably guess, the Beaver Creek fire burning in the Wood River Valley was identified because of a nearby "Beaver Creek."

“You know there was a fire years ago called the Oak Fire and it was named after Oak Flats," Damico says. "Or you’ll see something like the ‘white lighting fire’ and it might have [started] on the eve of a lightning storm.”  

But Damico says sometimes, mistakes are made. For example, the Incendiary Creek fire burning near Orofino was named after the Incendiary Creek drainage. But fire managers realized later that the fire was actually sparked in the next drainage over – but by then the name had stuck.

And afterall, not naming a fire “Incendiary” when you have the chance would be a pretty big missed opportunity.