How Do Fires Get Their Name? And Other Questions We Get Asked A Lot About Wildfires

A firefighter watches the smoke and flames from the Ranch2 Fire in the hills in Azusa earlier this month. (Apu Gomes / AFP via Getty Images)

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Our newsroom has answered many, many questions about wildfires over years. One of the most common:

Q: WHO NAMES THESE FIRES ANYWAY?

That honor goes to the dispatch center that sends the first firefighters to the scene of a fire, or sometimes to those firefighters themselves, according to CalFire. Fires are usually named for the area where they started: a local landmark, a street, a creek, a mountain, etc. The 2017 Thomas Fire, for example, was named for Thomas Aquinas College. The Skirball Fire, also in 2017, started near the Skirball Center, and the Apple Fire started near Apple Tree Lane in Cherry Valley. The Ranch2 Fire (initially named the Ranch Fire) began near North Ranch Road near Asuza.

That's the short answer.

On Sunday, Cal Fire released this video explanation that goes a bit deeper into the process. (Note: you can turn on captions if you want them using the gear icon).


MORE FAQ

Here are more answers to some of the most common questions we've gotten over the years. If you don't see the one you're looking for, please let us know.

Fire curiosities | Transportation | Evacuation | Preparedness

Q: WHAT HAPPENS TO WILD ANIMALS IN A WILDFIRE?

It really depends on the animal. National Park Service researchers studying the aftermath of the 2013 Springs Fire in the Santa Monica Mountains have found three things:

  • The animals that remained in burn zones a year after the fire were either mobile and escaped the flames, like deer, or they could eat a wide variety of food, like coyotes.
  • Some animals that had disappeared from burn zones were less mobile, like rabbits, meaning they died in the fire or starved to death afterwards in the charred, barren landscape.
  • Still other animals that had disappeared from the burn zones after the fire were picky about their habitat. Bobcats, for example, prefer dense, woody undergrowth, which disappeared in the burn.

Q: CAN FIREFIGHTERS USE SEA WATER TO PUT OUT THE FIRES?

According to Cal Fire, yes, but it's not ideal. Spokeswoman Debbie Strong says firefighters prefer freshwater, like lakes and reservoirs, but if that is not available, they can dip their buckets into the ocean. However, they have to clean their buckets out afterwards to prevent salt corrosion.

One reason firefighters prefer freshwater, Fire Captain Larry Kurtz told the Orange County Register in 2016, is that it is safer to hover close to the surface of the water than at sea.

Q: HOW FAR CAN AN EMBER TRAVEL?

Three to four miles! That's according to Robyn Broyles with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. She says the distance depends on what kind of vegetation is burning and how strong the wind is blowing. Fires that burn in the crown, or top, of trees and bushes are the most likely to produce embers that can get carried by the wind.

In fact, it is wind-blown embers, not a huge wall of fire sweeping through a neighborhood, that generally cause houses to burn down, according to a trio of San Diego firefighters standing outside the smoldering remains of a house in a Ventura neighborhood. Many residents had chosen not to evacuate and instead were dousing their roofs with water, stamping out small fires that ignited in potted plants and on their decks and frantically cutting brush and dead vegetation so flying embers had less fuel to burn. For tips on how to fireproof your home from embers, read this.

Q: WHY DON'T FIREFIGHTERS USE THAT THICK FOAM LIKE THEY DO AT AIRPORTS?

We put this question to Cal Fire, and they said the foam used at airports to put out jet fuel fires just doesn't work when dropped from airplanes onto wildfires. Instead, they use three different kinds of firefighting chemicals, according to Shirley Zylstra with the U.S. Forest Service.

  • Gels, which are are similar to the chemicals found in baby diapers, allow water to stick to trees and bushes, creating a thick layer of fire protection. Gels are only useful until the water they contain evaporates: about an hour.
  • Foams are like a strong dishwashing detergent. They allow water to absorb more easily into trees and bushes, protecting plants from flames. Foams last even less time: no more than 20 minutes.
  • Retardants, the red liquid you often see falling from planes, are by far the most popular form of firefighting chemical because they can be dropped ahead of the fire line and last longer than foams or gels. They create a chemical reaction that pulls heat away from the fire, cooling it to the point where it can't sustain itself — except when the wind is strong, causing flames to grow to 4 or 8 feet in length. In those situations, retardant is "not helpful," according to Zylstra.

EVACUATION

Q: HOW ARE PEOPLE NOTIFIED IF THEY ARE IN A NEW EVACUATION ZONE?

Unfortunately, there is no centralized alert system in Southern California to notify residents about fire evacuation orders. Instead, each county in the region - Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside — has its own text alert system. Here's how you can opt in.

Q: HOW DO I CHECK TO SEE IF MY LOVED ONES ARE OKAY?

One way that police recommend is for those looking for missing family or friends to visit the American Red Cross's website, Safe and Well, where people can register themselves as safe.

Q: WHAT DO I DO WHEN I RETURN HOME AFTER A FIRE?

Check for fires on the drive back home. When you get there, walk around the inside and outside of your house checking for embers or dangers from downed power lines or gas. If you find fires during your checks, Cal Fire says to call 911 immediately.

DO

  • Wear a mask rated N-95 or better while cleaning up [Note: Because of COVID-19 these masks are now difficult to find.]
  • Walk carefully. When ash gets wet, it can be slippery.
  • Check for embers. Cal Fire suggests looking in the attic, rain gutters, on the roof, under decks, in crawlspaces and in any piles of debris for embers that might've floated in.
  • Give your pets a bath to get rid of ash.
  • Put on gloves, long pants and a long sleeve shirt.
  • Throw away frozen food that might've thawed during a power outage. Also, throw away food that was not in airtight containers, but was exposed to the air, like food stored in cardboard boxes. According to the County Department of Health, food in sealed glass jars and metal cans should be safe.
  • Toss plastic bottles, like bottles of water, that have ash on the caps. According to the County Department of Health, rinsing off the bottle caps is not enough to decontaminate the containers.
  • Put any ash you do collect into a plastic bag, so it doesn't blow away.
  • If using a generator, use an extension cord to plug appliances directly into generators — no power strips, just one appliance per outlet, to avoid an overload that could shut the generator down

DON'T

  • Don't turn on your electricity if you see any damage to your meter.
  • Don't try to fix any damaged gas meters, gas lines or propane tanks. Instead, Cal Fire says to call your local utility provider.
  • Don't touch any downed wires. Again, call your utility provider.
  • Don't let kids play in the ash, whether its dry or wet.
  • Don't let ash linger on your skin. If ash does get on your skin, wash it off using warm water and soap.
  • Don't eat the food in your refrigerator if there was a long power outage.
  • Don't kick up more ash into the air. That means avoid using your leaf blower to clean up the ash. Instead, the County Department of Health suggests sweeping the ash carefully, and then using a wet mop.
  • Don't use too much water, though. As the County Department of Health explains, ash gets slippery when wet.
  • Don't use your average home vacuum cleaner to clean up ash unless it has a HEPA-filter. The Department of Health warns that regular vacuum cleaners will just blow the particles back into the air.
  • Don't plug a generator directly into your home's electrical panel or power meter — the power can flow back out onto the wires on the street and give workers a bad shock.

You can read the complete list of precautions in both English and Spanish on the Dept. of Public Health's website. Cal Fire has also provides tips and guidance.

Q: IF WE LIVE OUTSIDE OF EVACUATION AREAS, DO WE NEED TO WEAR MASKS OUTSIDE?

The answer has less to do with whether you're in an evacuation area, and more to do with local air quality. This map, from the PurpleAir network of sensors, has real time information on particulate pollution in the air. If you're near an sensor that's colored orange, the elderly, children, or people with respiratory illnesses could begin to feel the effects of poor air quality and may want to consider wearing a mask. Once the sensor is red or purple, everyone will be impacted.

You can also sign up for text or email alerts about smoke and poor air quality here, and look at the South Coast Air Quality Management District's map here, although it's not as local as PurpleAir's.

In general: if you see or smell smoke, ideally you would wear an N95 respirator mask. Important caveat: They are now very difficult to find due to COVID-19. If you have a respiratory illness, you may want to take extra precautions.

Q: WHY DON'T WE HAVE A SIREN FOR EARTHQUAKES LIKE MEXICO CITY DOES? IS THERE A SIREN FOR FIRES?

Outdoor warning systems were used in Los Angeles in war-times - air-raid alarms in the 1940s and sirens for the event nuclear attack in the 1960s. But because there are so many different hazards in the region, (fires, earthquakes, mudslides and more) Jeff Reeb, director of emergency management in the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office, says it wouldn't be clear what any one siren might signify.

The use of siren systems has fallen out of use in favor of county-specific Wireless Emergency Alerts that can provide specific instruction about what action to take. Reeb encourages people to keep the emergency alert feature active on their phones, despite the unnerving sound.

"There's no magic bullet," said Reeb. "It take a variety of ways to get out information."

Outdoor warning sirens are generally uncommon in the state, but there are some used to warn of tsunamis. In the Bay Area, Oakland does have a siren system with three distinct sounds - a steady tone that means shelter in place, a slow wail for a tsunami alert and a fast wail for a fire alert.

In Ventura County, the only siren system is in place is to warn of flooding near the Lake Casitas Dam.

As for earthquake alerts, there are a number of systems in development, including a cell phone-based system called Shake Alert that's in the beta-testing phase.

TRANSPORTATION

Q: HOW CAN I FIND OUT WHAT ROADS ARE CLOSED?

It depends where you live and what roads you're trying to find out about. CalTrans has closures of major roads and freeways listed here. The agency also has a mobile app you can download.

PREPAREDNESS

Q: WHAT AIR MASK SHOULD I BUY?

We tested five different masks, from the simple bandana (avoid that) to the hardcore respirator. You definitely want one that has the N95 label, which means it filters out 95% of airborne particles, including smoke, if you can access one in an exisiting fire kit or other means.

Q: IN L.A., WHAT CAN WE DO TO PROTECT OURSELVES FROM THE FIRES?

Let's break this into two categories: inside and outside the house.

Inside, it's really important to have a working smoke alarm. Also, have an evacuation kit ready to go in a portable container, like a backpack or a tub. It should include:

  • Three days of food and three gallons of water per person
  • Paper maps
  • Medication
  • Extra clothes
  • Glasses and/or contact lenses
  • Extra set of car keys, credit cards, and cash
  • First aid kit
  • Batteries and battery-powered radio
  • Flashlight
  • Copies of important documents
  • Sanitation supplies
  • Pet food and extra water

There are also number of things you can do outside your house and on your property to limit the risk of wildfire burning down your home. All cities and counties have different rules (here are the City of L.A.'s), but most require you to cut brush and grass within 100 or 200 feet of your home, remove all low branches on trees to keep fires from climbing into the canopy and remove tree branches hanging over the roof of your house. If you're a renter, ask your landlord to make sure this gets done.

Make sure you're signed up to receive messages from local emergency officials about evacuations. They may also come down your street or send you a notification using the Amber Alert system. Finally, when an evacuation order is given or if you see smoke or flames in the distance, grab your evacuation kit and go.

HAVE MORE QUESTIONS?

Note: This FAQ was originally written by Ashley Alvarado and Emily Guerin in 2017 and has been updated a couple of times since.