The first big fire I covered as a news reporter was a big ol’ apartment house blaze on Lisbon Street that took crews an entire day to knock down. 

Smoke wafted across the downtown the entire afternoon. The snap, crackle and roar of devilish flames could be heard from blocks away as the tenacious fire continued to consume all in its path. 

Burned out residents wandered among the fire hoses in a daze, clutching puppies and cats and whatever else they’d managed to carry out with them as they fled their burning homes. 

Fresh fire crews came from all over, relieving beleaguered local firefighters who had battled the flames for hours under a scorching summer sun. A section of Lisbon Street had been shut down to traffic and hundreds of people gathered in the normally bustling street to witness the destruction. 

It was, one local told me, a real corker. 

I distinctly remember getting back to the newsroom that day, sweaty, reeking of smoke and amped up to write a dramatic story of carnage and chaos and great human woe. 


I sat down at my desk and began to write. 

“The Lewiston Fire Department battled an apartment house fire today with the help from the Auburn Fire Department, the Lisbon Fire Department and others who helped fight the fire.” 

You see the problem, of course. That’s five uses of “fire” in one ungainly sentence, and that was just the very beginning of my story. 

Backspace, backspace, backspace. 

“Firefighters from Lewiston, Lisbon and other departments battled a conflagration at a Lisbon Street apartment house today, but after hours of firefighting, the fire was still burning.” 

That’s only three uses of “fire” which is better, but I dunno, man. Is “conflagration” really the right word to use for a fire that was confined to one building? I didn’t have a dictionary handy, but I was reasonably sure that “conflagration” is a word best reserved for epic poems and for occasions where entire city blocks have burned flat. 


Backspace, backspace, backspace. 

“Firefighters from Lewiston, Lisbon and other departments battled a blaze at a Lisbon Street apartment house today, but after several hours, the fire was still burning.” 

The word “blaze” was salvation for a minute or two, but by the time I got to the second paragraph, I realized that I’d already used THAT word six times on top of copious use of “fire” and “flames.” 

Backspace, Backspace $#!!@#! backspace. 

“What’s another word for ‘fire’?” I hollered across the newsroom. 

“Conflagration!” came the first reply, which really serves me right for seeking help from a guy who covers city council meetings. 


I eventually considered the word “inferno” as a possible alternative, but then I made the mistake of asking Sir Miriam and his goofy twin Webster for a definition. Inferno: “a place or a state that resembles or suggests Hell.” 

That might describe parts of Lisbon Street, sure enough, but use it in reference to a common house fire and you end up sounding like a fifth grader who got a thesaurus for his birthday and who wants to wow his teacher, Miss Jones, because he has a massive crush on her. 

But just you never mind about that. 

Fire is one of the most powerful forces on earth. Its discovery, by some guy named Paul Methius, completely shaped the evolution of the human race. Without fire, we’d still be living in caves and dragging our hairy knuckles on the ground. Fire is everything and yet, at best, we have two synonyms suitable for use when writing about it. 

Consider the garden variety downtown street fight. When I go out to cover one of those, I basically spend my time arrogantly polishing my fingernails because I know that when it comes time to write about it, I’ll have near limitless choices to describe the action. 

“Police were called out for a brawl on Pine Street Saturday afternoon and when they arrived at the fray, they found nearly two dozen people involved in the fracas.” 


To describe those fisticuffs, I can go with “scrap” or “melee,” “dust-up” or “scuffle.” Depending on how the fight proceeded, I might call it a “skirmish,” a “tussle” or an “affray.” 

The editors even let me get away with describing a violent clash on Birch Street one time as a “donnybrook,” a term defined as “a scene of uproar and disorder.” I mean, woot, right? 

If it’s one of those scenes where there’s a lot of pushing, shoving and name calling but no actual punches are thrown or groins kneed, go ahead and call it a “ruckus,” a “mix up” or a “quarrel.” I’ve always found “quarrel” particularly fun because it makes me feel like I’m writing about Laura Ingalls feuding with some stupid boy on the playground outside their one-room Walnut Grove school. 

Even your basic car accident gives a reporter plenty to work with. You can describe it as a crash, a collision or a wreck and you won’t be wrong. The only trouble you might have is if one of the cars bursts into flames and then you’re back to using “fire” and nothing else. Although, if you want to go ahead and describe that burning Toyota Celica as “a blazing conflagration of the type not seen since Vesuvius,” go ahead and do that, cuz it will give your editor something to grumble over and grumbling is an editor’s very favorite thing. 

If you get “fired” over the whole affair, that’s a different kettle of fish. With “fire” in that form, I can go with “terminated,” “canned,” “sacked,” “discharged,” “sent home,” “let go,” “ousted” and about five other terms I can’t list here because they feature dirty words and that would just make my editors start grumbling all over again. 

Incidentally, I have a few dozen really nifty words to describe my relationship with editors, but I can’t list those, either, or I’d surely get axed. 

And that wouldn’t impress Miss Jones at ALL. 

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