Giving names to smoke and fire

  • Jamie O'Neill


We name fires the way we name hurricanes, giving them the identity that comes with our naming. Naming our fears also makes them a little more manageable, which is probably the main reason we go to the doctor, seeking a word for what ails us, because having that name is at least as comforting as the prescription that comes with it. Names provide limitations, dispel mystery, and help to confine the roving imagination of disaster. What’s happening may be terrible, but at least we know what to call it.

The fire burning up the road from me has been dubbed “the Chips Fire,” and the smoke from it has kept the town where I live shrouded in a dense and acrid haze for several weeks now. It comes and goes, lifting and dissipating like fog, only to return during the night, or settle back over us in the late afternoons.

Currently, the Chips Fire is still burning out of control, only 55 percent contained as I write these words in late August, with more than 65,000 acres burned, many homes lost, and hundreds of people evacuated.  It's but one of several such fires throughout the West. We've had a long hot summer, with a very early series of fires in Colorado that set the tone for how things would go. Estimates for when the Chips Fire will be controlled keep getting pushed back, and now we’re told that neither we, nor that fire, will be out of the woods until the fall arrives, leaving us to look forward to perhaps more days of sneezing, coughing and worrying. Even though the fire is 40 miles away, that smoke and the sound of helicopters overhead combine to create a tangible anxiety that you can sense from people in the supermarket or the post office, and feel in your own skin.

The Chips Fire is a bad one, hard to control because it’s burning up and down very steep ridges in the Feather River Canyon. That canyon provides one of the most scenic drives I know of in the entire Intermountain West, but the verticality that makes it so scenic also makes it nearly impossible to get fire crews into strategic places to fight it.

Where I live is down canyon from that fire, so the likelihood that the fire would turn this way and consume some 40 miles of terrain to get to us is remote. But that doesn’t lessen the apprehension created by all that smoke. Those of us who’ve lived in the high country for a long time know that where there’s smoke, there’s bound to be more than one fire sooner or later.

Some of the smaller fires are given names, too, but unless lots and lots of acres get consumed before the fire gets extinguished, those fires are not recorded in memory, don’t become part of the folklore of disaster told and retold by locals who love to regale newcomers or visiting flatlanders with tales of how much harder life can be in the mountains than wherever it was they came from. We hate calamity when it’s happening, but as it recedes in memory, the human drama we survived adds a special quality to our lives. Blizzards take their place in our personal tales, and when heavy rains sweep away a section of the canyon, we remember that, too. In retelling those stories of local disaster, our lives are enlarged, dramatized, particularized.

No one except arsonists or masochists wants fire or other bad things to happen, but since bad things do, indeed, happen, we take what we can from them, comforting ourselves as stalwart survivors who went days without electricity, who trucked our animals to lower elevations, or calmly endured the smoke and the anxiety until the dangers were passed.

They call the wind Maria, as the song said, though nowadays, they have computers that generate names for hurricanes as soon as they appear on the radar. And, up here in the mountains, we name our fires, parceling out titles for the tales we’ll tell when time has rendered those fires safely distant, when our memories have made them even worse than they were when we were sweating them out, our eyes red with smoke, our minds unsettled by uncertainties about what was yet to come.

“Yep,” we’ll tell our restless grandchildren, “that’s the scars from the Chips Fire. The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see a car 10 feet in front of you. Lots of people got sick from the smoke; that’s how bad it was.”

Jaime O’Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News( He writes in Magalia, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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