Wildfires on the Prairie

Prarie Fires painting

Fire was a constant threat in the West. There is barely a western settlement that doesn’t include a historical note on the day it “burned to the ground.” Many communities were rebuilt again and again, until folks replaced wood with brick and adobe to cut down on the dangers of fire. But fires in town were one thing; fires on the prairie were another. As settlers came West, they found vast stands of prairie grass, sometimes as high as a man’s shoulders. They also found something else—wind that had little to get in its way that blew at a ferocious level unknown in the East. (North Dakota still has that wind and it’s eerie to lay in bed at night and imagine how that wind sounded to folks in makeshift soddies or crude cabins.) So how fast could a prairie fire travel? It depended, of course, on how vast the stand of grass still was, how dry it had gotten, and what kind of wind was blowing. But historians say that with strong winds, prairie fires were known to overtake men on horseback traveling at a gallop.

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