Thursday, November 21, 2013

Prairie Fires

I will never forget the night my husband and I were driving back to my parents' farm from an evening in Macksville when we noticed a strange orange glow on the southern horizon.  My father knew at once what it was.  "Someone's place is on fire," he said, as he headed the car in the direction of the orange glow.  Although he drove as fast as possible on the dirt roads, by the time we arrived, others were there ahead of us.  Some were stretching hoses toward the burning barn of Leroy and Dutch, while others filled every container they could find with water from stock tanks and hydrants, slopping half of it out as they ran toward the blaze to throw what was left on the fire before running back for more.  It was quickly obvious that garden hoses and pails of water could not put out the roaring fire that had summoned everyone with flames reaching into the night sky.  Attention was turned to stopping the spread of the fire to other outbuildings and the house, and neighbors succeeded in doing that.  As I recall, the owners were away from home on vacation, and had neighbors not arrived to fight the fire, far more could have been lost.
Prairie Fire East of Isaac Werner's Land! 
The idea of neighbors joining together to fight a fire on someone else's property is as old as the settlement of the prairie.  Isaac wrote in his journal:  "Green & I helped fight fire on old George Henn's 1/4 section, got it finally subdued.  Some 18 men out and several teams, fire originating somewhere from new school house site, through some carelessness."  On the prairie there was no fire department to call.  Instead, neighbors depended on each other.  "Another reckless fire hot to drift down from N. of creek through Vosburghs pasture & burning over Persis two claims.  We--Harry [Bentley], F. Curtis, W. Goodwin & Gus [Gereke] over there plowing and back firing on W. side of Persis timber strip & finally got things safe."
Burned field in Background 
Isaac seemed to feel that both of those fires were the result of human carelessness.  In the early years, migrating settlers passing through and leaving embers from their campfires were a particular problem.  Occasionally the cause was a household source, as Isaac described of a close neighbor's fire:  "Yesterday [Jesse] Green's stable yard & roof of stable burned up, caught from stove pipe during noon."  Isaac was particularly critical of those who burned off pastures when conditions were too dry, or who thought a single rainfall had soaked dry grass adequately to allow safe burning nearby.  The arrival of railroads on the prairie was another source of fires caused by man, as sparks from the engines often ignited dry grass along the tracks.
Tracks through the Burned Field
However, prairie fires had occurred before the land was settled.  Lightning was the natural cause of those fires, and the population of the plains did not decrease that possibility, especially with so much unbroken prairie sod providing dry grass to ignite.  The reason there were no trees on the prairie when the settlers arrived was not because the land would not support the growth of trees, but rather because of fires that raced across the prairie, burning every sprouting tree whose seed had germinated in the prairie soil.   
Today there are local fire stations in rural communities and small towns to help put out fires, if they arrive in time and if the strong prairie winds aren't driving the flames along too rapidly to control.  Many farmers now burn stubble intentionally, a practice that frightens me just as the prairie fires frightened Isaac.  Most of the time the farmers only burn when the air is calm and equipment is standing by to control the spread of the flames, and the real danger often occurs when the fire appears to be out but hidden embers come alive later as winds pick up speed.  Fields left idle for conservation are also burned to minimize weeds and encourage new growth.
One evening my husband and I were returning home just after sunset, and a controlled burn lit the nearby horizon, a row of trees between us and the flames.  The dark silhouette of the trees in front of the orange and purple flames twisting and dancing skyward became the image for my manuscript's description of the real prairie fire Isaac watched as it traveled just to the west of my great grandfather Aaron Beck's homestead and timber claim

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