Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’re having our usual cool and foggy summer. But in the hotter inland and upland parts of the state, wildfire season is entering its third month. A couple of weeks ago, I drove home from Los Angeles on I-5, near where the poetically named Sand Fire was consuming more than 41,000 acres in the Santa Clarita Valley. The name suggested a hellish haboob, but in fact the fire was named for nearby Sand Canyon.
Most wildfires are named that way: after local landmarks. “The commander on the scene often uses a nearby geographical feature to describe the fire, but he's not bound by any official rules,” Daniel Engber wrote in a 2005 Slate article about fire-naming. “He first suggests a name to the interagency fire dispatcher, who passes it along in fire reports, dispatches, and so on.”
How, then, to explain the Cold Fire, which is currently raging in Napa and Yolo counties?
Cold Fire near Lake Berryessa, August 3, 2016. Photo via The (Santa Rosa) Press-Democrat.
When I first heard the name, I immediately thought of Shakespeare – specifically of a speech of Romeo’s in the first act of Romeo and Juliet:
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?
Shakespeare often used oxymorons like “loving hate” and “cold fire” to express confused emotion. Romeo and Juliet is full of oxymorons, from “sweet sorrow” to “damned saint.” In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus mockingly describes the rude mechanics’ play as “hot ice and wondrous strange snow.”
As it turns out, though, the present wildfire’s name has a disappointingly prosaic origin story: it was taken from nearby Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.
Between Shakespeare and today’s wildfire news, “cold fire” has appeared in multiple contexts. Cold Fire is a brand of organic fire suppressant.
It’s the title of a 1991 novel by Dean Koontz.
And it’s the name of a line of microprocessors manufactured by Freescale.
“Cold Fire” may be evocative, but the Sherpa Fire, which burned more than 7,000 acres in Santa Barbara County in June, has the more interesting name story. It started on a Christian guest ranch called La Scherpa; the name was misspelled in the first written dispatches. The Santa Barbara Independent cited a U.S. Forest Service spokesman as saying that “once the name of a fire is entered into the national fire reporting and naming system, it can’t be changed — doing so would confuse administrators, make the name unsearchable in records, and so on.”
But what does “La Scherpa” mean? One news account quoted neighbors who said it meant “the shepherd.” Sorry – not in Spanish, French, or Italian. Nor is it a misspelling of sherpa, from a Tibetan word that means “dweller in an eastern country.” The Independent says that when the ranch was built in the 1930s, it was named La Chirpa, “which means ‘Lucky Strike’.” Close, but not quite: the Spanish term for “fluke” or “stroke of luck” is chiripa.
In other words, the place has been plagued by misspellings from the very beginning.
For more on wildfire-naming, see this transcript of a 2015 NPR story, “How Do Wildfires Get Their Names?” My favorite example: the Not Creative fire in southeastern Idaho. Chalk that one up to exhaustion at the end of a long day of firefighting. And also, perhaps, to the fact that all fire is destructive rather than creative.