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How do wildfires get their names?

AskWaves: A look at how officials assign seemingly random names

This year has not been kind to firefighting crews across the country. As of Tuesday, 40,681 wildfires were burning nationwide, 1,289 more than this time last year. This is according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Almost 100 of these fires were classified as large. FreightWaves has been tracking the wildfires, such as Bootleg, Dixie and Rogers Creek. Here’s how they get their names.

Related: Dixie fire spreading, now second biggest in California history

What’s in a name?

Unlike hurricane names, which come from predetermined lists, wildfire names are a bit more arbitrary.

Brian Reublinger with the U.S. Forest Service told FreightWaves that there isn’t a set rule on how a fire is named. However, most names are assigned by either dispatch centers or the incident commanders who arrive first to the fires.

A wildfire is usually named after the closest landmark — water tank, street name, road sign, etc. — or a nearby geological feature like a stream, lake, canyon, mountain peak, trail or ridge. In some cases, fires are named simply for the towns or counties in which they originate. The benefit of naming fires is to provide a common way to reference them for each of the agencies and departments involved, as well as dispatchers, the public and the media.

Creative block

Every so often firefighters have a tough time thinking of a name, especially when a wildfire isn’t close to a well-known landmark or feature. In these cases, fires could be named almost anything. It may be named after an animal, rock, tree, vegetation type or other object as long as it isn’t disrespectful, inconsiderate or derogatory, Reublinger explained.

This situation popped up in 2015 when a fire started in southeastern Idaho. It was the state’s 57th fire of the season, and responders just couldn’t come up with a name, according to an NPR report. With no easy landmarks nearby, and after a long day working this as well as dozens of other fires, officials decided to just call it the Not Creative fire.


Reublinger said wildfires are very common, especially in the West, and their names can be repeated. Sometimes, fires of the same name in a local area are given consecutive numbering, such as the Foothill and Foothill 2 fires, or dispatch will inform the incident commander that the name needs to be changed.

For instance, two large fires burning in two states this year had the same name — the Dixie fire in northern California and another Dixie fire in central Idaho. To avoid confusion, officials renamed the Dixie fire in Idaho to include the nearby Jumbo fire, and it became the Dixie-Jumbo fire.

Reublinger added that a fire can be renamed at any point during suppression operations, regardless of the fire’s size.

Related: Western wildfires heating up jet fuel demand


As destructive as some wildfires have been over the years, their names are not formally retired like some hurricane names. However, Reublinger said some historic fire names have not been reused out of respect to the lives lost. If the name of a destructive, historic fire is reused inadvertently, it can always be changed. However, Reublinger added that some fire names are so common that they are likely to always be included in the fire lexicon.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.