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Heated Words: Lingo of the Men and Women Who Fight Wildfires

Welcome to this week's Wordmaster. I'm Adam Phillips.


That is the sound of a wild fire. Although late September and early October usually signal the end of forest fire season in North America, 2006 has been far worse than usual in terms of the number of fires reported, and the extent of the damage they have caused. In the western United States, where the most severe fires are, it is common to have anywhere from five hundred to a thousand firefighters and other personnel working on a blaze.

Not surprisingly, firefighters have developed their own special ways of describing the fires they fight and the techniques they use.

For example, says Dan Buckley, a fire specialist at the National Park Service in Boise, Idaho, firefighters often speak of the large, out-of-control blazes called GOBBLERS.

DAN BUCKLEY: "We call it a gobbler because it's gobbling up hectares. Another one would be 'the fire is blowing and going,' or the fire is 'misbehaving.' That means the fire behavior is so extreme that it is impossible to predict where it might go."

Buckley says that firefighters will often speak of fire as if it had a personality, or feelings.

DAN BUCKLEY: "Yeah. You find people who try to apply human or animal descriptions [to fire]. They call it the DRAGON, the BEAST. There are a lot of different terms that folks use."

Wildfires certainly behave in strange and dangerous ways. Often, a low-grade fire is said to be SKUNKING AROUND, that is, burning low, keeping to weeds and other ground-level vegetation. But firefighters who drop their guard against such a fire can risk injury or death. According to Jeb Voskamp, a medical expert at the Rattlesnake River fire in central Idaho, SKUNKERS can become BURNOVERS in mere minutes.

JEB VOSKAMP: "Burnovers are when a fire overruns a crew or a location so you can have a burnover of a camp or a burnover of a structure or you can have a burnover of a crew. It means the fire moved onto them too fast for them to retreat. In that case, they take shelter in a safety zone or a fire shelter."

That's when it's an excellent idea for fighters to pull out their portable SHAKE and BAKEs, quickly! Shake and Bake is actually the brand name of flour and seasoning-filled bag for coating meats before cooking. Dan Buckley explains what firefighters mean by the term:

DAN BUCKLEY: "Shake and bake is a nickname you might hear someone call a fire shelter, an aluminum pup tent that is used as a last resort by fire fighters if all their escape routes and safety zones away from the fire zone are compromised, they will use the fire shelters to give themselves a little bit of a chance to survive a burnover."

Firefighters use many techniques to contain fires they cannot put out right away. One of these is called a BURNOUT, which can help prevent the spread of fires that could damage local logging operations or recreational areas. Merrill Saleen, the Incident Commander at Rattlesnake River, explains.

MERRILL SALEEN: "A burnout is where we back off to a road or some kind of natural barrier from the fire edge to close the gap between the fire and the natural barrier that we want to use as the control line."


A lot of fire suppression activity is done by flame retardants using aircraft like this giant Hercules C-130 transport plane. After stopping to load up on fuel in what aviators call the PITS, the aircrafts' loading bays are filled with the red powdery retardant chemical, called MUD, thanks to hardworking ground crews called MUD DOGS.

Still, most firefighting is done by humans, on the ground, close enough to feel the heat. Dale Jablonski, a fire behavior specialist from Utah, says there are several names for the "fire behaviors" one typically encounters.

DALE JABLONSKI: "A CROWN FIRE is where it's burning actively through the crowns. GROUP TORCHING is a clump of trees that will burn up like a candle. TORCHING is one tree. 'Group torching' is maybe two or three trees."

Jablonski adds that there are several ways a fire crew can attack a fire, depending both on local conditions and overall strategy. One can HOTSPOT, that is, concentrate one's forces on the most intense portions of the fire itself. Or one can PUT UP A SCRATCH LINE - surround a fire with just enough water with a fire hose to check its advance. And there is SNAGGING.

DALE JABLONSKI: "Snagging is a term we use where we are taking out dead trees that pose a threat to firefighters taking out a fire line. If you're STINGING the fire - you can't fully suppress it, but you want to KNOCK IT BACK [retard it], you'll go ahead and knock it with some water or some dirt and 'sting' it."

Whatever the firefighters might call the fires they fight and the gear they fight them with, one words truly says it all: HOT! At the Rattlesnake River fire complex in south central Idaho, I'm Adam Phillips reporting.