Unnamed: Great fires deserve names, not just a number

Tuesday, July 10, 2018 9:30 PM
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

06-12-18- Trees killed by the Valley Fire in 2002 still stand as a reminder with the 416 Fire burning in the backgroun.

The most famous fires in human history would have to include the Great Fire of London in 1666; the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; and the San Francisco Fire in 1906. All were sensibly named for the places they burned.

In a list of infamous American wildfires, you’ll find the Chetco Bar and Eagle Creek fires in Oregon in 2017, the California wildfires of 2007 and 2008, the Yellowstone fires of 1988, and the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in 1949. Closer to home, there’s the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.

What do they have in common besides being fires?

They all had names.

In the Civil War, battle names could be confusing, as the Confederates would call a battle “Shiloh,” for example, and the Union would call it “Pittsburg Landing.”

The more urban Northerners tended to regard bodies of water or a landing as noteworthy, historian Shelby Foote observed, while the more agrarian Southerners deferred to the names of towns, like Shiloh, Tennessee.

Yet, from Leesburg to Fair Oaks to Ball’s Bluff, none of those epic battles suffered the indignity of being dubbed with a number. It would be as though someone stuck out their hand and said, “Four One Six, pleased to meet you.” Doesn’t work.

Numbers are wonderful things. We use them for dates. We use them for area codes. They help us avoid confusion.

Take 416. It happens to be the area code for Toronto. In 1904, before there were area codes, Toronto burned – an event known to posterity as the Great Fire of Toronto of 1904. There are numbers in that fire’s name, but it has a name. It has a place.

Now, the danger has passed and we’re in the beginning of the end of our 416 Fire. Also still burning in Colorado are the Spring Creek and Lake Christine fires. We’re fortunate, of course. But still: They have proper names. Is that fair?

When our 416 was in its youth in the early days of June, it got its designation from dispatchers who took the first report, which was incident No. 000416.

Suppose the God of Genesis had brought a camel to Adam to see what he’d call it and he said, “It’s got the hump, let’s see... Well, it’s the 15th animal you’ve shown me, Lord. Let’s call it a Fifteen!”

There’s a lack of initiative and imagination there, although we’re sure that first responders have other priorities, and that’s a good thing. There’s a story about a man who saw a diner choking, and, wanting to help, said, “What’s that maneuver called again?”

You don’t want action delayed for want of a name. Yet, everything eventually deserves one, doesn’t it?

Numbers can be wonderful. Math and physics are glorious. But numbers alone are soulless. It seems almost unfair that Durango would go through so much destruction for something with no poetry in it. Asking firefighters to put their lives on the line for that feels like asking soldiers in Vietnam to die defending Hill 319.

A number is not a name. Names are memorable. Numbers are meant to be interchangeable. But maybe that’s our silver lining. Because, really, why do we want to recall a disaster like this?

Perhaps we got lucky after all.