It's been a very bad year for wildfires all over the American West. For nearly a month now, even up here in the Bay Area, we've been getting regular updates on the Day Fire, which has burned more than 160,000 acres of Southern California's Los Padres National Forest since Labor Day. It's one of the largest wildfires in California history, and it has cost more than a million dollars a day to fight. As of October 1, it was 87 percent contained.
I grew up in Southern California, where wildfires were an annual phenomenon like the grunion run, only more dangerous. But all the fires I'd known were named for the places they burned: Malibu, Bel Air, Cedar (after Cedar Creek in San Diego County), and so on. I'd been wondering how the Day Fire got its unusual name. Did officials think it would be controlled in one day?
An email from a friend and neighbor who's visiting relatives in Southern California--and who'd asked the same questions--gave me an unlikely-seeming lead: "Because it started on Labor Day." Then why isn't it called the Labor Day fire?
I found my answer in an unexpected place: The American Spectator. Correspondent Reid Collins did some serious digging and came up with this explanation: two fires started on Labor Day; one was dubbed "Labor" (that fire was quickly controlled) and the other one "Day."
Who came up with these unusual yet pallid attempts at nomenclature? Collins ferreted out that answer, too: the dispatch office of the Angeles National Forest. "This is a fairly new procedure," Collins informs us. "Up until a couple of years ago, the honor of bequeathing the name fell to the 'incident commander' at the fire scene."
So now you know. And if you want to know even more, here are some places to start. Doc Searls, who lives near the fire area in Santa Barbara (and who is much better known as a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto), has been posting firsthand reports on the Day Fire in his blog, and he's posted many terrific aerial and terrestrial photos of the fire on Flickr. (That's one of his shots at the top of this post.) For more on California wildfires and the catastrophic social planning--or utter lack of it--that has caused them, read Mike Davis's compelling Ecology of Fear. And for the complete song lyrics (from Lerner & Loewe's Paint Your Wagon) from which I excerpted the title of the post, go here.