A fire with an interesting name

And, Contain vs. Control

Ojo de los Casos Fire
Ojo de los Casos Fire. Undated Inciweb photo.

It is unusual for a large fire to have more than two words in the fire’s name, not counting the word “fire”. And it is not common for a fire name to be a multi-word phrase. Fire agency employees whose jobs entail completing forms or maintaining records get grumpy when they have to write or type over and over, a long fire name or one that may lead to misspelling.

A fire 17 miles southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico on the Cibola National Forest is named “Ojo de los Caso Fire”. Since it was reported on July 8 the blaze has burned 180 acres of timber, brush, and grass.

The names for many fires are derived from a nearby landmark. I asked the Fire Information Officer Andrea Chavez how the fire was named and what it means in English:

Depending on the map you look at, there are various colloquial names for a spring in Cañon de Chilili near the origin of this fire, including “ojo la casa” and “ojo los caso”. Therefore, firefighters initially on scene dubbed the fire Ojo de los Casos

Ojo de los Casos colloquially translates to Spring of the Cause. However, it is possible this name was derived from an older nomenclature, Ojo de Casa (House Spring), which has been found on older maps of the area.

On Wildfire Today we rarely regurgitate containment percentages that are put out by Incident Commanders, because the numbers are unreliable. I have seen too many large fires that had miles of cold fireline that officially had zero or 10 percent containment. Too often this number appears to be grabbed out of the air with no effort to be accurate. Other times it can be a conscious effort to deceive. An incident commander may think that by publicizing a low containment number, it can be easier to hang on to resources, or to rank higher in priority among fires that are competing for scarce resources. They may also think it makes it easier to justify maintaining evacuations. Other incident commanders actually base the containment on the portion of the perimeter where the spread has been stopped by a fireline.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has a very extensive glossary of wildland fire terms. Their definition of “contain” is:

The status of a wildfire suppression action signifying that a control line has been completed around the fire, and any associated spot fires, which can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread.

The incident management team on the Ojo de los Casos Fire posted on InciWeb July 11 that the fire was 10 percent contained. They also described on InciWeb what containment means to them:

Percent containment is based off the actual amount of containment line that is safe enough to leave unattended without worries of heat, embers or hot spots flaring up and having potential to cross that line allowing additional growth of the fire.

I asked Ms Chavez where they got their definition. She said:

Our incident commander and operations personnel elaborated on [the NWCG] definition to provide more detail based on their many years of experience and training.

Later that day an update appeared on the fire’s InciWeb page that was devoted to the concept of containment. It reads in part,

Complete “containment” is the ultimate goal for the fire management team in command of fire suppression activities.


My Opinion

The ultimate goal of firefighters is to put out a fire, or “declare it out”. The step before that is control. And before that, containment.

NWCG Glossary:

Controlled — The completion of control line around a fire, any spot fires therefrom, and any interior islands to be saved; burned out any unburned area adjacent to the fire side of the control lines; and cool down all hotspots that are immediate threats to the control line, until the lines can reasonably be expected to hold under the foreseeable conditions.

The Incident Commander and the operations personnel on the Ojo de los Casos Fire are conflating Contain and Control.

In my mind, Contain is to have a good, solid fire line without a great deal of residual heat near the line. It would still require patrol and mopup but the spread has been stopped at that location. That leaves open the unlikely chance that the fire can cross that section of line if something unexpected happens.

Control is the next step — mopup is complete near the fire line, burning out is complete, snags have been dealt with. At 100 percent control the Incident Commander and the Operations Section Chief are staking their reputation on their assessments that the fire will not spread beyond the established firelines.

When a fire is “Out”, there is no combustion occurring.

Ojo de los Casos Fire
Ojo de los Casos Fire. Undated Inciweb photo.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

20 thoughts on “A fire with an interesting name”

  1. You are 100 percent correct. Ms. Chavez is making stuff up based on inexperience. Her ICT needs a basic fire refresher.

    1. Agreed. “…reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread.” We need to put reason and experience back in the field. But of course you can’t contain a fire too quickly, then you would have to control it. We all know what that would mean…

  2. Totally agree with the containment first, control as next and finally extinguishment or “out”. Oh well won’t let it ruin my day.

  3. As far as it goes, I like Ms Chavez’ basic definition. We can always split hairs like a Dominican, and in argumentation we tend to do so.
    I’m still waiting for someone to name a great Campaign fire “The Cat,” so we can report to posterity how much Federal resources we used “to put the cat out.”
    (In all of this, and especially in these times, sometimes bureaucracies need to be lightened up for a nanosecond.)

  4. I agree with your opinions. In my extensive type 1 team career, I found IC’S and fire or forest leadership get real nervous and start uttering things and fidgeting when I/we would say this this is 75% contained. The most common questions I would have asked of me is” well…you are saying this is 75% contained, what if we lose it, we will be in trouble or somehow look bad or lose our jobs”, no kidding.
    Contained is simply put contained, line, hose lays, natural barriers. This still requires mop up and some work. If we continue to misuse the term contained for selfish, inexperience, or political reasons, we will all pay for it with our credibility.
    I agree, I completely ignore % contained lately. We need to get back to intended definitions and put our money where our mouth is.

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more. The shift in definition seems to be far more about PR than actual progress on the ground. Seems like “controlled” has suffered a similar fate.

    1. You wouldn’t like New Mexico, Chuck. Spanish names on terrain are beyond common. Check out a map when you have a moment. For that matter, Spanish names are common on California and Arizona. You probably want to drop your insistance on English names.

    2. Yeah, Chuck, got that right! We’ve never before had a fire named with two or more words, you know, like Thirty Mile or Marble Cone or Big Bar. Or South Canyon.

  5. Bill thanks for the good article on names. I liked using the name of the location but in one of the districts I worked in it was getting repetitive, with constant arson starts, so I would come up with names like, jogger fire, dead cow, and such. One was associated with a murder, so I called it the Homicide Fire. Management was not humored so we had to change it.

  6. I’m curious how Ojo de Casa ends up as House Spring. A spring that water comes from is “manantial”. And ojo means eye. Yo no comprende. Creo que las cosas son diferentes en Nuevo México.

    1. Sí, cosas son diferentes en NM. “Ojo” se utiliza comúnmente para nombrar a “springs.“. Ojo Caliente, Ojo Sarco, Ojo Amarillo, etc.

  7. A phrase that has gained quite amount of use in the last 5 years or so in California ( Mainly CALFIRE) for general public PR and news media info is “The forward rate of spread has been stopped”. Seems to work quite well in my opinion as a quick and simple size up for the public and media. The entities then follow up with containment, control numbers at formal press conferences for the larger incidents ect… But for for the daily one operational period or smaller fires it is quick and easy for the on scene IC prior to declaring control.

  8. Where are people learning this stuff. Seriously, when did we get to a point where the basic fundamentals of firefighting have been twisted to meet someone’s idea of what is right? Other examples I hear constantly are “east side”, “west flank”, “north part”, etc. Please use the basic, fundamental parts of the fire when you are giving a size-up or update, and especially when talking to aircraft. Off topic, but more examples of getting away from the basics. Let’s turn this ship around!

  9. Pete
    I am not sure what you are trying to say. I have never heard of an equation in determining containment other than the accepted definition

    1. Like the Marble-Cone, Rodeo-Chediski, Las Conchas, Cerró Grande, Mann Gulch, South Canyon…? I could go on.

  10. A other strangely named fire!

    Not much of a fire by western statistics, but NY State recently had a fire named the, “Short One Ranger Fire!”

    I suspect there is a cryptic message behind that one!

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