At 8 this morning the sky was cinder-gray and the sun was dull orange. I parked my car in the driveway for a couple of hours and returned to find it covered in a thin veil of ash. Even though we're 60 miles northwest of the fire that's currently wiping out thousands of acres of Santa Clara County wilderness, we're definitely within its range.
This week's fire started on Labor Day, just as the Day Fire did last year. They're calling the current "major incident" the Lick Fire, a name that manages to be both prosaic and poetic.
The Lick name is well known in these parts. James Lick (1796-1876) was a carpenter, real estate speculator, philanthropist, and patron of the sciences who had the good sense to fetch up in San Francisco in January 1848 with 600 pounds of chocolate he'd brought from Peru. A few days after he arrived, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. Today there are several schools named after Lick, as well as a section of freeway, the James Lick Mansion in Santa Clara, and the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, which is operated by the University of California. Lick is buried under the observatory, and it's that institution--ten miles from the start of the fire--that gives the fire its name.
"Lick" is apt in other senses, too. Lick "to pass the tongue over" is a very old word in English, with many cognates in world languages. It's often used metaphorically in expressions about water ("The waves licked at the shore") and, of course, fire ("The flames licked at the cottage walls"). Lick also has slang meanings: to whip, to beat, to defeat. All of which makes Lick an eerie and effective word with which to name a major wildfire.
As of today, the fire had burned nearly 19,000 acres and was 25 percent contained.
Other recent California wildfires with interesting names: the Moonlight Fire, the Lazy Fire, and the Quien Fire. Quién is Spanish for "who," but I haven't been able to find out why it's the name of this Monterey County fire (100 percent contained, by the way).