Consider this passage in a tourist guide published by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1884:
“During the first night’s ride westward from Omaha, the traveler, as he gazes out of his car window, will often find his curious attention rewarded by the sight of one of the most awful, yet grandest scenes of prairie life. The prairies, which in the day-time to some, seemed dry, dull, uninteresting, occasionally give place at night to the lurid play of the fire-fiend, and the heavens and horizon seem like a furnace. We have never seen anything of prairie life or scenery possessing such majestic brilliance as the night glows, and the rapid advances of a prairie fire.”
This writer is actually promoting prairie fire, which white settlers considered a terror and a disaster, as a tourist attraction – ride the UP across Nebraska, he says, and be entertained by the flames. Now, contrast that image with this one.
“The prairie lay black, smoking, and covered with bodies. Scattered between one-quarter and one-half mile from the schoolhouse, all seven victims were charred and naked, their clothes now ash around them. Not all were dead. Frank Davis, director of the rural school in southwest North Dakota, and William Pike, father of one of the victims, were the first to reach the scene. ‘Words cannot describe its horror,’ Davis stated after viewing the carnage. ‘Here a hand moved, there a head, and again another was past movement.”
This second passage describes the aftermath of the horrible fire of 1914 near Belfield. The teacher, seeing the fire coming, had instructed the students to make a run for plowed ground. Some of them made it, but five became confused and ran the wrong way. The teacher and an older girl student ran to save them, but perished with them.
Both these scenes come from a new book written by Julie Courtwright and published by the University Press of Kansas. Courtwright is a girl from Augusta, Kansas, now degreed up and serving on the faculty of Iowa State University. Her book, entitled Prairie Fire: A Great Plains History, covers a subject it is surprising has not been treated before in any comprehensive way: the spectacular, traumatic, and pervasive way that fire has figured in the culture of the plains.
The story begins long before white settlement on the plains. Native peoples fired the prairie habitually, for many reasons, but one main reason: they used fire to create and maintain the prairie. We tend to think that grassland is some natural state ordained by God for the plains, but in fact it is what an ecologist would call an induced formation. The plains were made over into grasslands by fire, and require fire to sustain them.
As white settlers arrived, some of them—particularly stockmen—observed and learned from native fire traditions, but the majority—homesteaders and townspeople—feared fire and sought to suppress it. I think the most fascinating part of Courtwright’s book is when she gives the on-the-ground details of how prairie dwellers tried to protect themselves. The frontier situation was they were occupying homesteads, little islands of residence and cropland, in a vast expanse of grass in a semiarid, windy place.
Fireguards and backfires were the answers, plows and matches the weapons of choice. Prairie people forting up behind their fire guards, while at the same time marveling at the spectacle of dancing firelines, were transformed in unexpected ways. Fire—fear of fire, struggle against fire, admiration of fire, use of fire—was embedded into their identity as plains folk.
Fire remains an object of fear, as witness the blazes that hit the Blackfoot reservation in Montana last month. As well as a matter of fascination, as witness the annual use of prescribed burning of pastures as agritourism in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Fire is in the nature of the place.