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All Over The Map: BC names wildfires a bit differently than Washington

BC Wildfire Service frequently updates their website and this interactive fire map. (BC Wildfire Service).

Earlier this summer, All Over The Map looked at how wildfires are named in Washington and other states in the Pacific Northwest.

North of the border, it turns out, wildfires in British Columbia are named according to slightly different guidelines, and the fires are fought a little differently, too.

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Kevin Skrepnek is the Chief Fire Information Officer for the BC Wildfire Service, an arm of the British Columbia provincial government that fights wildfires and shares information online and via the media. Skrepnek’s office is in Kamloops at agency headquarters.

“We’ve been fortunate this year,” Skrepnek said by phone earlier in this relatively mild fire season. “Obviously, [it’s been] a much quieter year compared to the last two.”

In Canada, unlike in the United States, Skrepnek says, “the federal government really doesn’t have much of a role in terms of wildfire response, the only exception being in [Canadian] national parks … otherwise, all wildfire responses are at the provincial level.”

The naming protocol is also slightly different, too. The process is a bit more esoteric, and ultimately feels more, for lack of a better term, “Canadian.”

“Every fire in the province is given a number [as an] identifier, and it starts with a letter that letter signifies whereabouts in the province it is,” Skrepnek said.

There are six regional fire centers in BC, Skrepnek says.

“The Northwest Fire Center, which is based out of Smithers; the Northeast Fire Center, which is based out of Prince George; the Coastal Fire Center, which is basically all of Vancouver Island, and then the Lower Mainland; the Kamloops Fire Center, which is the south central part of the province; the Cariboo Fire Center, which is kind of a landlocked part of the interior; and then the Southeast Fire Center is based at Castlegar,” Skrepnek said.

Six fire centers means six code letters, which, Skrepnek says, are a bit of time capsule related to BC Forestry Service history.

“It’s actually a carryover from many, many decades ago, when these [areas] used to be forest districts,” Skrepnek said.

“I’ll give you some examples,” Skrepnek said. “In the Northwest Fire Center, [codes for] fires in that area start with an ‘R,’ and the reason is, that used to be called the ‘Prince Rupert Forest District’ [the ‘R’ is for ‘Rupert’]. The Coastal Fire Center used to be the ‘Vancouver Forest District,’ so those fire [codes] start with a ‘V.’”

Skrepnek acknowledges that this isn’t the most intuitive system, though it also isn’t really designed for public or even media consumption.

“It’s a little bit more historical than tied to anything contemporary,” he admits.

For obsessive types who care about these kinds of things – like someone who produces a weekly feature about place-name origins — what about the other four fire centers?

“Fires in the Cariboo Fire Center start with a ‘C,’ that’s fairly self-explanatory. Similarly, Kamloops Fire Center fires start with a ‘K,’ Prince George Fire Center fires start with a ‘G,’” Skrepnek said.  “And then, Southeast Fire District fires start with an ‘N’ because that used to be the ‘Nelson Forest District.’”

Skrepnek says that in addition to the letter codes, fires are identified with a “unit” number related to what part of the BC Wildfire Service is in charge of the response, and fires are also numbered in sequential order.

Each year, the BC Wildfire Service starts “at ‘1,’ and usually, by the end of the season, we’re up to 2,000 or 3,000,” Skrepnek said. “So that [combination of a letter and digits] is what we call the ‘fire number.’”

Fires are given names, too, for the same reason that fires are named in the United States: to share information with the media and the public. But the British Columbia approach to choosing a name is a bit more sensitive to the adverse impacts of what a fire can do to a town or region – beyond burning vegetation and buildings, or injuring or killing animals and people.

“One thing we are conscious about here is we try to never name a fire after a community,” Skrepnek said. “We try to pick a geographic feature. So a lake, a mountain, a river or a creek, a bluff [or] even a road. We’ll typically name our fires after that instead of naming them after a town or the community that they’re burning near.”

And this is where the protocol feels more “Canadian” – in a good way – than how wildfires are named in the United States.

“We’re sensitive to the fact that often communities might not necessarily want to be associated with a fire,” Skrepnek said, “particularly in the summertime [because it can] have adverse effects on tourism and travel, things like that, if you’ve got a fire named after a particular community.”

“At least that’s been our take on it,” Skrepnek said.

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