Naming disasters

Why do mainstream broadcasters keep calling that big fire north of Los Angeles “the so-called Station Fire?” You never hear “so-called Hurricane Bill” or “so-called Hurricane Erika”. Why is that?

The main reason is that hurricanes have a much better naming convention. The surnames of hurricanes are first names of humans. The first names of wildfires often make no sense to ordinary folk. Gap, Day and Station don’t call meaning to mind. As I recall the Day Fire was the second to start on Labor Day, 2006. The other fire was called Labor.

With their human names, hurricanes are personified, making them easy to follow and remember. Katrina, Andrew, Hugo and Fran leap from memory a lot quicker than “The Great Hurricane of 1938” — which happened to be a Category 5 monster. It killed hundreds of people and blew out the wind guage at the Blue Hill Observatory when a gust hit 186 miles per hour. If it had been named Lucinda, it would have persisted as one of New England’s greatest weather legends. Instead it’s like, whoa, who knew?

According to this report, fires are named by the people who fight them. I suggest to those same folks that it will be easier to fight a fire with a personified name than a locational one. Why? Fear. Residents are much more likely to get their rears in gear when “Jack” or “Martha” are coming up the canyon than when “Station” is doing the same.

13 comments

  1. Ron Schott’s avatar

    Interesting observation, Doc. The Hawaii Volcano Observatory has a habit of naming eruptive events (and often the volcanic features that result from them) after the day that they begin. For example, the active lava flows and tubes on the East Rift Zone currently emanate from the Thanksgiving Eve Breakout (TEB). The last distinct episode of activity prior to the current flows is known as the Fathers Day event. And a previous episode was named for Martin Luther King Jr Day (the MLK vent and flow complex). In an area that’s rather devoid of other named landmarks it seems that the timing of events often dictates the informal naming of the resulting features.

  2. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    The Station Fire to me means the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, set off by pyros during a Great White concert. 100 people died.

    And, on TV, “the station fire” does sound like it’s the fire station or perhaps the TV station itself that’s burning.

    But hurricanes already have the normal names. How about villains? Hellraiser, Bluto, Cruella, Lex Luthor, Caligula, Loki, Mephisto… the list is long.

  3. Steven Tulsky’s avatar

    The list of villain names may be long, but note that there were over 42,000 named fire events in just one year alone! That would require a lot of villains….

    Recognize that the need to name a fire doesn’t come from a PR perspective, but rather from the protocols of the Incident Command System. At any fire (or other incident), large or small, the senior people on the scene immediately set up a command post and give it a name. This is necessary for radio communications purposes–when dispatchers want to speak to the person in charge (which may be changing as more senior people come on the scene), they address their call to “Tea Command” rather than to “Chief Jones”. Therefore, fire officers are used to giving their commands the most obvious names available–usually the name of the street to which the responders were first dispatched.

    BTW, we do something similar with earthquakes–we name them after the place closest to their epicenters, which is usually not the place that is getting all the news coverage. Who had ever heard of Loma Prieta before 1989? Most people would have thought of that as the Great Santa Cruz Quake or even the Marina Quake, but no, it’s forever to be called the Loma Prieta Quake. Oh, well….

  4. Arne Evertsson’s avatar

    In Sweden, really bad hurricanes tend to get Norwegian names. Naturally, it’s because the typical Norwegian is like the big bad wolf and we hate their guts. Well, not really. It’s really because Swedish weather people prefer names like “the january storm of 2005″. That particular hurricane is known to the rest of the population as “Gudrun”. Go Norway!

  5. Jeff’s avatar

    Fires, as you say, are generally named by firefighters, who name them while wiping soot and sweat from their eyebrows. Hurricanes are named by meteorologists in comfortable chairs. No judgment there, that’s just the way it is. And as a prior commenter mentioned, there are far fewer of them per year, so they get the luxury of naming name.

    I live in Mendocino, home of a huge lighting-caused fire complex last year, and many of my friends are firefighters. I figure they can name them whatever the damn well please, because if they are close by, I don’t care what their names are. If a firefighter said “the *&)(% fire is headed this way”, frankly what I would hear is “THE FIRE IS HEADED THIS WAY”. (I may be in the minority with this attitude.)

  6. Bob Blakley’s avatar

    I think there’s a linguistic barrier to what you propose, Doc. “Hurricane” sounds natural both as a noun (“The hurricane destroyed my house”) and as an adjective (“preacher Joe” or “hurricane Bill”).

    “Fire” isn’t like that. In the phrase “Fire Bill”, “Fire” doesn’t seem to the average English speaker to function as an adjective – it seems to function as an imperative transitive verb (i.e. “Cause Bill to be fired!”). You can’t really say “Joe Fire”, so you’re forced back on “THE Joe Fire” – and in this construction the article (“the”) subliminally depersonifies the fire and turns it back into a thing.

    There might be a way out of these woods though – for some reason, even though “fire Bill” sounds weird, “wildfire Bill” sounds fine.

  7. Bob Blakley’s avatar

    By the way, just as I hit “submit” I realized that the title of this entry has a problem very similar to the one I described. When I first read the entry, and while I was typing my response, I thought your title was meant to be interpreted as “more than one naming disaster” – but I realized at the last minute that you probably intended “how to name disasters”.

    These subtleties are one of the reasons I love English!

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    You’re all right (in more than one sense of the phrase). Bob, my original rushed draft of the post went into the noun and adjective issue. Steve, the same draft also visited the large number of fires and probable difficulty of naming them. But I lost that draft, and the current one was no less rushed, but far less long.

    In any case it’s an interesting topic. And for now Jeff’s point is the one that remains defaulted.

  9. Don Lindsay’s avatar

    Wildfires are often named for tactical reasons. Because wildfire fighting often occurs in out of the way areas, the names are generally derived from strategically important locations that aren’t generally recognized by people who don’t actually know the area, but are useful reference points for firefighters who must deal with the unique weather, fuels conditions, wind and spread pattern of a fire that also just happens to be occuring in the same general area of previous ones.

    A hurricane is often a much more geographically wide event which makes it convenient to give them names that allow easy identification as the hurricane event moves along it’s track.

    If a typical wildfire were to occur with the same geographic scope and movement of a hurricane, there would be little else that humanity would be concerned with, heh.

    There is the additional consideration that you can’t really actually fight a hurricane, like you can a wildfire, you can only really just try to secure the people and the area it passes through, while it is often the reverse case with a wildfire, which can be fought, contained, managed, ect., and usually the earlier the better.

  10. Sean Reiser’s avatar

    Interesting topic as always, Doc. I do wonder how much of the hurricane phenomena is based in naming and how much is based on the impact to people.

    Humans tend to be myopic when it comes to history; Katrina, Andrew, Hugo and Fran all happened in our lifetime. We saw the video and pictures on TV in the case of Katrina, we may have read interdictor’s live journal as it was happening. 1938, OTOH, is something most of us have only read in textbooks and on wikipedia. It doesn’t seem as real. You see this repeated in other areas, the War in Iraq feels “more real” then the American Revolution or WW2 to many folks for the same reason.

    Interestingly, Gloria will always be the ultimate storm to me because the eye passed over my house (I was a Long Islander at the time). Now it was only a Cat 3 when it made landfall on the Island, but the damage was more real to me then any other storm because it had an effect.

  11. Chuck McGuire’s avatar

    One night in the USFS Northern Region, in the year 2000, there were 700+ recorded lightning strikes, and 320+ documented fire starts. That’s one night, in one region, in an epic wildfire year. We had fires named after a member of the initial attack crew, others based on where the fire started. Started, not where it finally ended up. The main problem with fire reporting is that it is not conveniently converted into sound bites, and reporters aren’t allowed to learn how it is done. I, having more than 10 years in the game, have always been entertained by a project fire that is “5% contained”. In other words, it is 100% out of control.

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