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Dixie, Bootleg, Goose. How Wildfires Get Their Name

Following the Dixie Fire, flames burn in a tree in the Canyondam area of Plumas County, Calif., Friday, Aug. 6.
Following the Dixie Fire, flames burn in a tree in the Canyondam area of Plumas County, Calif., Friday, Aug. 6.

Natural disasters have names and labels. Hurricane names are selected from a predetermined list. Diseases, at one point often named for where they originated, now follow a specific set of naming guidelines. Wildfires get names too.

The Dixie Fire, California's second-largest wildfire in history, is named for the road where it started nearly four weeks ago. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, "Cal Fire," fires are often named for their geographic location. Nearby landmarks, like roads, lakes, rivers and mountains, can also become the fire's namesake.

"If a fire is called into the 911 center off of Main Street, this fire would be called the Main Fire," explains Cal Fire's Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant in an informational video. "If a caller calls in and says, 'I'm at Monterey Park and there's a fire at the park,' dispatchers would likely name this fire either the Monterey Fire or the Park Fire."

Wildfires need to be named quickly in order to start fighting them efficiently, which tends to leave the responsibility of naming the fire to the dispatcher or the first firefighters to arrive on the scene.

"All fires get a name. That allows the firefighters that are responding to them to quickly understand where they're going, and allows those back in our emergency command centers to prioritize our resources and to quickly track them down," Berlant explains.

Of course, this kind of pressure can be the cause for some pretty interesting names. In 2015, Idaho's 57th wildfire was named "Not Creative" by exhausted firefighters who couldn't come up with a name on the spot, according to firefighter Besty Haynes, who spoke with NPR's Morning Edition that year.

And after 39,402 wildfires that have blazed so far this year, some interesting names are bound to happen. Among the 108 wildfires burning in the U.S. right now are the Lava Fire and Tango Fire in California, the Goat and Goose fires in Montana, and the Walrus Fire in Oregon.

But while these names can seem fun, wildfires are anything but. Wildfires now burning in the U.S. have scorched over 2,325,263 acres, and more than 25,200 wildland firefighters are out fighting them.

Josie Fischels is an intern on NPR's News Desk.

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