Plains Folk

Fighting Fire


Everyone said I was responsible, but no one really proved it. They all said I was the one who started the big wheat fire, having made the mistake of backing up the truck through the stubblefield, causing straw to pile up by the muffler and ignite. Spontaneous combustion seems to me like a better explanation.

The hired man did the traditional thing, trying to put the fire out by running it through the combine, which didn’t work, and he got rather singed in the process. Given the price of combines, no one tries that anymore. I was reminded of it, though, as recently I reread some old classics of the open range cattle industry, two of which had some specific and exciting descriptions of fighting prairie fires.

When farming pioneers took up homesteads, they plowed fireguards, and thus had some chance of protecting the home place from prairie fire as it passed. In the earlier days of the open range, stockmen battled fires on broad fronts to protect both livestock and forage. The typical method was to light backfires, then extinguish them, in hopes the onrushing prairie fire would burn itself out.

The problem was, the backfire had to be extended over a considerable front, and then it had to be put out promptly, else you just had another big prairie fire going. How was that extinguishment to be done?

In Ranching with Roosevelt, a memoir of the Dakota Badlands, Lincoln A. Lang provides an answer. “Whenever a prairie fire broke loose, everything else was forgotten for a time,” Lang says, and with prompt response, “barring high winds or super-dryness it was usually possible to confine the devastation to comparatively small areas.”

Some knowledgeable stockman first had to discern the leading wedge of the moving fire, ahead of which would be situated the backfire. A rider then lit the backfire by dragging a kerosene torch. A modest backfire could be beat out by cowboys on foot with their slickers. A larger one required heavier medicine.

“Of all the appliances tried in the connection of dragging out grass flames nothing had ever been found to equal the gory half carcass of a newly skilled steer,” writes Lang. “Combining weight with sufficient elasticity to accommodate itself to the unevenness of the ground, such was a sure quencher.”

The method, then, was to shoot a big steer, butterfly-split it with axes, and drag it across the backfire using two horses and ropes. Grisly, but effective, one steer sacrificed to save the herd.

A quarter-century later Ike Blasingame, author of Dakota Cowboy, was riding for the Matador Land & Cattle Company on the Cheyenne River Reservation and helped fight the big fire of 1905. The range lessees on the reservation had manufactured drags for fire suppression-blankets of asbestos affixed to steel springs, sort of like mattress springs. This heavy apparatus was effective, but so great was the fire, and so prolonged was the campaign against it, operating along a twenty-mile front, that the drags wore out.

“To remedy this,” recounts Blasingame, “a four-year-old steer was driven up close by and shot,” and the fire was dragged out with, as he writes, the “hide, carcass, and entrails.”

“Ten or twelve steers were killed for this purpose by the Matador,” says Blasingame, “and doubtless each of the other outfits used as many.”

From all of which I gather, this method of putting out fires by dragging a dead steer over them was commonplace on the open range. Fires were huge in those days, but fortunately, the steers ran large, too.

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