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Painted By Smoke

The leaf of an Oak Tree sits covered in ash at the fireline of the Museum Fire north of Flagstaff.

At approximately 11:15 a.m. on Sunday July 21, 2019, a wildfire was born in Flagstaff’s Dry Lake Hills and, like any newborn, it needed a name.

Unlike proud parents, sometimes contemplating their children’s names months and even years in advance, naming a wildfire is all about speed and precision. They require names that represents them alone: there are no Emmas or Liams of the wildfire world.

Burning in the same region as the Schultz and Radio Fires, Museum, though unique, seemed out of place, invoking memories of the devastating 2018 blaze in the Brazilian National Museum that destroyed most of the relics held there.

But no, structures on the nearby 200-acre Museum of Northern Arizona campus were not burning, nor were their contained artifacts.

Representatives from the Coconino National Forest stated that the incident commander, usually the first on the scene of a wildfire, typically gets to name local wildfires and looks to nearby prominent geographical features for inspiration.

However, the true naming power lies with dispatchers, who verify that the term is appropriate and unused.

True Brown, battalion chief for the Flagstaff Ranger District, was the first incident commander for the Museum Fire and is responsible for ordering the resources needed to combat wildfires within the Coconino National Forest.

He has worked in this forest since 2002 and was one of the first to arrive on scene that day.

“I knew the location, I knew access would be difficult and after seeing the color and size of the smoke, I knew that we were going to need a lot of resources coming if we were going to catch it,” he said.

Brown was driving to the scene of the fire when he began to order backup ground crews and helicopters. But to do so, the infant blaze needed a name.

“Dispatch asked if ‘Museum’ was a good name because it was roughly near the Museum of Northern Arizona’s property. To expedite those orders, we agreed, ‘Museum Fire, it is,’ and everybody got down to business,” Brown said.

So which dispatcher is responsible for naming the fire?

It remains a mystery.

In the scramble to order resources to combat the flames, Brown could not remember who suggested the name.

Clearly, despite a combined trickiness and creativity that could attract professional linguists and nomenclators, the wildfire naming process is not one for fame-seekers.

The rules are clear: nothing lewd or inappropriate, no repeated names from the same year in the same forest, no trademarks, no long names and no numbers, which could be confused with incident reports.

“Because our fire load on the Coconino [National Forest] is so high, names do get used pretty frequently, especially when it comes to those geographic features,” Brown said.

Unfortunately, the collateral damage with changing things up and naming a wildfire naming after an organization is this namesake itself.

“I think [the wildfire] would have felt very nearby no matter what, but because it was named the Museum Fire it was hard to separate from us,” said Kristan Hutchison, director of marketing at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Adding to that feeling was the incremental rumbling of helicopters arriving every 10 minutes to pick up water from the neighboring city reservoirs.

“It felt a little like being in a war zone, but we were taking great comfort because we could see how intensely they were fighting this,” she said.

When the helicopters stopped coming for a period the Wednesday after the fire broke out thanks to a belligerent – or ignorant – drone owner, museum staff felt the same fear that prompted more than 100 people to call or email to see if the museum was on fire and needed help transporting artifacts.

Hutchison said even more reached out via social media.

Fortunately, the museum’s most secure building, the steel-and-concrete Easton Collection Center, held most of the museum’s collections. Those that were not already there were moved and the team is now considering storing these items in the collection center at all times going forward.

The artifacts in the collection center were also protected by a sprinkler system, so staff feared more for the loss of the more vulnerable buildings on their campus, like the wooden McMillan Homestead and potato barn.

“At first we were a little concerned [with the wildfire’s name] because we don’t want to be associated with a disaster, but after seeing the positive and caring response that everybody had, we’re not as worried. It’s very nice to know that everybody would really jump in and help the museum if we were in danger in any way,” Hutchison said.

Another museum near to the fire, the Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum, also took precautions to protect its most valuable artifacts by moving them to a secure location within town.

Brown said such community responses to the fire and its possible ramifications – unlike any he has seen before – helped characterize it, even beyond its ferocity and distinctive name.

This nature has likely secured the Museum Fire a legacy of individuality: Brown said not to expect to see any future museum-named wildfires in Flagstaff.

Now, it remains to be seen whether a fire by any other name would burn as much.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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