When a blaze like the Saddle Butte Fire ignites, firefighters go through a check list. They make a quick plan, check their gear, call for reinforcements and they… name it?
“When the first unit arrives on scene, we are naming the incident geographically,” Jackson Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen said. “But at the moment you are making that decision, you have 100 other priorities to think about.”
Some fire names just stick, like the Roosevelt Fire that burned through Bondurant last year, but others are named in the heat of the moment, and sometimes responding agencies will change a name they feel doesn’t quite fit. The Boulder Lake Fire that ignited in August outside Pinedale was originally called the Tannerite Fire after the type of exploding target that started the blaze.
Likewise, the Saddle Butte Fire that captivated Jackson a couple of weeks ago was originally dubbed the Virginian Fire by Fire/EMS because it started outside the well-known hotel on Broadway. With that blaze, Hansen said, it quickly grew to a size that necessitated a name that people from outside Jackson could more easily find.
“As it grew into something bigger,” he said, “we wanted to change it to something more appropriate.”
Firefighting custom uses geographic locations, often from where the fire started, so that when more resources are sent in they have an easy way to determine where it is. Bridger-Teton National Forest Fire Prevention Specialist Nan Stinson said in an email that her agency has no “hard and fast rules” when it comes to naming, though there are a few conventions. One word is better than two, though in the case of the Stink Water Fire that started Sept. 3 outside Cody, a two-word name can have a good ring to it.
Stinson said that complexes of fire, created when several fires converge, can change names weeks after they start. She also said if a fire burns on national forest, the agency may come in and rename the fire when it takes over from the responders, who are often from local or volunteer fire departments.
Bureau of Land Management public information officer Brad Purdy said his agency takes a similar approach. Usually the federal agencies want to tack on an appropriate name early, though that doesn’t always happen.
“In the case of the Tannerite Fire, that stuck a little longer than we would have liked,” Purdy said.