As I write this, California is entering its tenth day of massive wildfires. In the south, the Woolsey and Hill fires lapped up 150 square miles in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, consuming mansions, movie sets, and the summer camp I attended as a child. In the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento, the Camp Fire has burned a 230-square-mile area, destroying 10,000 structures, killing at least 76 people, displacing thousands, and leveling Paradise, a once-lovely city of nearly 27,000 whose name now echoes with bitter irony. Here in the Bay Area, we are choking on smoke that drifted some 165 miles westward from the Camp Fire and transformed normally bright November skies into a khaki-colored haze. On one day last week our air quality was rated the worst in the world.
Fire has always been part of the West's natural cycle; now, though, thanks to climate change and population growth and spread, wildfires have become both more frequent and more destructive. With this ominous shift has come a new vocabulary for describing fire and its outcome – and new attention to some of the oldest words in our language.
Naming the fire. Fires aren't named in the same way as hurricanes, tropical storms, and – since 2012 – winter storms. Atlantic storm names are taken from rotating alphabetical lists of male and female first names developed long in advance by a single organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Fires, by contrast, are named on the spot for their place of origin, or a local landmark, by the group that makes the "initial attack" on the fire. As reporter Daniel Engber explained in a 2005 article in Slate: "The commander on the scene often uses a nearby geographical feature to describe the fire, but he's not bound by any official rules. He first suggests a name to the interagency fire dispatcher, who passes it along in fire reports, dispatches, and so on. … Each fire also gets an alphanumeric code used by both local and national firefighting agencies. These typically consist of a two-letter state abbreviation, followed by a three-letter locality and a three-digit fire number."
Before the late 20th century, fires were mostly given generic place names: Bel Air, Griffith Park, Yellowstone, Oakland. Recent fire names are more precisely calibrated. The Camp Fire, which began on November 8, wasn't caused by a campfire – a word used since the 1830s to mean "a fire lit in an encampment" – but was first sighted on Camp Creek Road in Butte County. The Woolsey Fire, which began on the same day, was first reported in the area of Woolsey Canyon between Bang and Black Canyon in Ventura County.
Sometimes this naming system yields oddly poetic results. The oxymoronic-seeming Cold Fire, in 2016, which was named for the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve in California's Yolo County, might have been plucked from Romeo's first-act speech in Romeo and Juliet: "Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health." The Sherpa Fire, also in 2016, had no relationship to sherpas real or figurative: The name was a misspelling of La Scherpa, a guest ranch near where the fire started – and that name was also a misspelling, of the Spanish word for "stroke of luck," chiripa.
Strangest of all may be the 2015 Not Creative Fire in southeastern Idaho. "After naming 56 wildfires in North Idaho over the past few days, fire officials struggled to name number 57," the Coeur d'Alene Press reported. They finally gave up.
Ancient fire. Unsurprisingly, words for fire are among the oldest in English. Fire itself – spelled fyr in Old English – is documented as early as the 10th century C.E.; it has cognates in German (feuer), Dutch vuur, and Danish fyr, and is related to the Greek root, pyr, that gives us pyre, pryomaniac, pyrotechnics (fireworks), pyrite ("fool's gold"), and the brand name Pyrex (heat-resistant cookware). Wildfire – an especially furious or destructive fire – is almost as old; it appeared in 12th-century texts, where it seems to have meant "fire caused by lightning." Nowadays, wildfire can be classified more specifically depending on the type of vegetation on which it feeds: brush fire, forest fire, grass fire. The idiom "to spread like wildfire," which first appeared in print around 1800, means to spread quickly; it's most commonly seen in association with news or disease.
The Camp Fire was spread by millions of embers, tiny bits of live coal or wood that are carried by the wind. "It only takes one ember to take out a house or a hospital," wildfire expert Stephen Pyne told Wired. "If there's any point of vulnerability, all those embers will find it." Ember was ǽmerge in Old English; its form changed in Middle English to eymbre, and by the 17th century it was being used figuratively: "embers of oblivion," "embers of war."
One way fire experts determine the cause and course of a wildfire is by examining the angle of char: the way, say, pine needles "froze" in the intense heat. Char is a comparatively modern word, especially in its noun form: The verb meaning "to scorch" or "to reduce to charcoal by burning" appeared in the late 17th century, and the noun meaning "a charred substance" cropped up only in the late 19th. Char was cropped from charcoal, a Middle English word that may have been created from two Old English words: chare, an obsolete verb meaning "to turn," and coal, "a burned piece of a combustible substance."
Then there's tinderbox, used frequently in descriptions of wildfires. ("Tinderbox California" was the headline on a November 17 Bloomberg story about the recent fires.) Tinder – "a dry, inflammable substance" – comes to us from Old English tynder, and has connections to Germanic words that mean "to kindle." (The popular dating app Tinder uses a flame as its logo and "match" in its tagline.) A tinderbox was originally a portable box containing flint, firesteel, and a flammable material. Tinderbox entered English in the 1500s; the physical object was made obsolete by friction matches, but the figurative use of the word – first attested in the late 16th century – continues to thrive.
Modern fire. With the new fires, and the conditions that cause them, sometimes the old words don't suffice. Take flammagenitus ("generated by flame"), a dense cloud triggered by a heat source – wildfire, volcano, nuclear explosion – on the earth's surface. The formation is informally known as pyrocumulus ("fire cloud"); it's an example of a fire's ability to create its own weather. In 2017 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) chose flammagenitus as the official name.
A firenado – the word is a blend of fire and tornado – is another example of fire-generated "weather." The word was coined in the early 21st century to describe a whirling eddy of flame caused by intense rising heat and turbulent wind; older words for the phenomenon include fire devil and fire whirl. It isn't, strictly speaking, a tornado, although it can have the same shocking effect. "I bent down to turn off the water," wrote Robert Kerbeck in the Los Angeles Times, describing his escape from the Woolsey Fire, "and a firenado materialized in front of me."
The November fires were caused in part by a drought so severe that it merits its own name: negative rain. "Every year we have a certain amount of rain that we expect as a result of historical patterns," Andy Wood, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told The Daily Beast. "Negative precipitation [comes] when you have a departure from that." When there isn't enough rain, the air gets "thirsty" because it can't pull enough moisture from the ground. A new tool developed by NOAA, the Evaporative Demand Drought Index, or EDDI, measures this "thirst." It's being used by farmers and ranchers in the West, and has also come up in analyses of the California fires.
So much for causes and effects: What about coping strategies? Here in the Bay Area, we're wearing masks – specifically, N95 masks. The designation is a government rating; the "N" stands for "non-oil-resistant," and "95" means the mask is certified to block 95 percent of hazardous airborne particles.
Do they help? Well, not if you have facial hair, if you're a small child, or – ironically – if you have a lung condition. And health officials disagree about the masks' utility for everyone else. Still, we plod on, looking like ghostly arthropods, waiting for the overdue rainfall that will finally clear the air.