Dakota Datebook

Prairie Fires 1884

Thursday, October 11, 2012

 

After the retreat of the glaciers, the central plains of North America became an ocean of grass. Each year the warm spring rains brought the dormant sod back to life and gentle summer breezes created green waves of grass that appeared to flow across the landscape. But in the semi-arid climate of the Northern Plains, by mid July the rains would stop and the long green blades browned in the hot sun. Rising air created dry thunderstorms spawning lightening strikes, setting the prairie ablaze. Columns of wind-driven flames swept through the hills and valleys. Frontiersmen, such as Alexander Henry, Jr., spoke of burned and blinded buffalo staggering from the smoke or of their bloated bodies floating on the river where the terror-driven animals had trampled each other trying to find safety from the flames.

 

As settlers moved onto the plains of Dakota Territory they began breaking up the sod, but much of the land remained in pasture. Influenced by the annual weather cycle, the lush green crops of early summer gave way to the golden, grain-laden fields of autumn. And along with the dry fields came the prairie fires.

 

But lightening was not the only cause of prairie fires. On this date in 1884, the town of Willamsport was surrounded on three sides by the fires burning brightly less than a dozen miles away. According to the Emmons County Record, a combination of idiocy and malice was responsible. Some people were careless and let firebreaks get away from them, while for other fires, the fire fiends had a “childish desire to see it burn.” Some, seeking to augment their income by collecting the sun-bleached bison bones, enabled their search by setting fire to the prairie – a violation of territorial law. So devastating were the fires, that the Board of County Commissioners offered informants half of a one hundred dollar fine to turn in violators.

 

Many lives were lost within those swirling walls of flame and property damage was immense. In 1886 a huge fire burned over five hundred square miles in Bottineau County. In 1888, the Jamestown Alert stated that a forty-mile-wide fire, sweeping the entire area from Jamestown to LaMoure, destroyed every vestige of grass. Thousands of bushels of grain were burned and many men lost all they had, including buildings and livestock. Even today, when Red Flag Warnings are given, farmers, ranchers and firefighters keep a watchful eye on the horizon.

 

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis

 

Sources:

 

Emmons County Record October 15, 1884

The WPA Guide to 1930s North Dakota, State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1990

 

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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