You probably saw there was a huge fire in Jantzen Beach over the holiday weekend. On the news, they called it a "five-alarm blaze." What does it mean when they describe a fire in terms of a certain number of "alarms"? —Flamin' Groovy
In this particular case, it means Jantzen Beach was constructed over a Hellmouth (anyone who's ever done any Christmas shopping there probably already suspected this). Likely, a stray balrog got lost on its way to Old Navy and, in its confusion, accidentally released the unholy flames of Dis. Happens all the time.
Oh, wait; you mean what's up with the terminology—one-alarm fire, two-alarm fire, and so on? Well, a lot of know-it-all blowhards (including, until very recently, this reporter) would tell you this naming convention refers to how many fire stations respond to the call.
While this may have been true in the days when additional station crews were alerted by telegraph, in modern times the meaning is less literal.
"It's just about resources," says Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman Ron Rouse. The higher the alarm number, the more firefighters and equipment are committed to the scene. Each successive "alarm" increment represents an additional three engines, one truck, one chief, two wizards and an orc. (I might have misread some of that.)
By this reckoning, the Jantzen Beach fire, with 20 engines and seven chiefs on site, might have plausibly been a six- or seven-alarm blaze. However, like the Fujita scale for tornadoes, this rating system maxes out at five.
In these all-hands-on-deck situations, crews from nearby departments—Tualatin, Vancouver, etc.—roll into town to fill the short-staffed station houses until additional off-duty Portland firefighters can be called in from home. This is why, even in their off hours, firefighters can't be as drunk as journalists.