Opinion

Wildfires should get named like hurricanes

It won't fix the climate, but it would help convey the growing urgency of the crisis

The Bootleg Fire is currently the largest active wildfire in the nation. As of Thursday, it had burned a region 14 times larger than Manhattan and produced a 130-mile-long pyrocumulus cloud while remaining just 5 percent contained. "We have not seen a fire move like this, in these conditions, this early in the year," the local incident commander warned. "Expect the fire to do things that you have not seen before."

But unless you're someone directly affected by the blaze — a resident under one of the mandatory evacuation orders, or in the path of the smoke — "the Bootleg Fire" might not ring any bells. The name doesn't tell you anything about where it is burning (southeast Oregon) or, more importantly, where this particular mega-fire falls in the progression of the year's fire season (it's the first to have burned more than 100,000 acres, but California's Beckwourth Complex Fire isn't far behind). 

That's a problem: The media needs to be covering the climate catastrophe in the West as seriously as it covers Eastern seaboard hurricanes, and while that isn't as simple as changing the naming system of fires, it is a place to start.

Wildfires are traditionally named after the location where they started or a landmark near them. But because so many fires start in relatively remote areas, the names are often meaningless to anyone from much outside of town: The current Darlene Fire, for example, is reportedly named after Darlene Way, a small road in the tiny Oregon town of La Pine, while the misleadingly-named Lava Fire, near an old lava flow off of Mount Shasta, was started by lightning. There are so many fires now, though, that first responders actually run out of names: There have been five Lilac Fires in San Diego County, and Idaho's 2015 Not Creative Fire was so named because the crew couldn't come up with anything creative to call it.

Hurricanes, on the other hand, are media darlings and given significantly more coverage than wildfires. "[T]he week Hurricane Florence made landfall, there were nearly 9,000 articles written about hurricanes; there were over 4,000 the week Hurricane Michael hit," observed Recode in 2018. "Meanwhile, during the week of Nov. 10, when the Camp Fire" — the deadliest American wildfire since 1918  — "was in full swing, only 2,000 articles were written." Part of that is logistics: hurricanes give reporters long lead times, while fires can become conflagrations within mere hours. But it's also bias: "If this was happening somewhere in or near the Boston-Washington corridor — and if the air in New York City and Washington was remotely as bad as the air in the Bay Area (where I live) — TV news would be on the story almost nonstop," journalism professor Dan Gillmor argued to the Los Angeles Times.

But hurricanes, and hurricane season more largely, are also better positioned as a media narrative because of the predetermined and easily understood naming system for the storms. The World Meteorological Organization decides on hurricane names years in advance and publicizes the lists, cementing hurricane season as an annual phenomenon that needs to be prepared for. Fire season in the West should be understood the same way.

The alphabetical naming system of Atlantic storms also keys the public into the severity of a given season. While it would be impossible to come up with a coherent naming system for the thousands of fires that burn across the country every year, systematically singling out the mega-fires — those that burn more than 100,000 acres, like the Bootleg — would be simpler, since there were only 27 such events in 2020. Assigning a fire a new name once it reaches that grim benchmark of acreage would spark headlines and, hopefully, renewed attention and alarm.

"Wildfire Ana" admittedly doesn't tell readers anything more about a fire's location than "Bootleg." But awareness of just how many mega-fires are burning across the U.S. every year, and how early, could be an easy and informative adjustment and one with a high upside: The fire crisis in the West is a result of human-caused climate change, and it is only going to get worse year after year without urgent, drastic action. Calling a fire "Victor" isn't going to save the planet, but if it means more people rightly think wow, there have been a lot of big fires this year, then we should have done it yesterday.

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