Prairie Fire!

Mary Boos was working in the garden that afternoon and paused to rest as a warm wind blew across the yard. Right about that time one of the little girls said, “Mama, look at that big cloud.”

Mary’s eyes followed. She noted the grey cloud that seemed to be billowing up from the fields a few miles from their small farm. Plumes rose in the air and were swallowed in the vast prairie sky.

“Oh no. That’s a fire–a big one!” she exclaimed as she scanned the horizon.

For an instant her thoughts tumbled between fear and confusion. She and the girls were home alone; her husband Mike had taken the oxen that morning and gone to Ernfold, their nearest town, for supplies. What could she do to save the children? And would the fire catch Mike en route, too?

Like all grassland homesteaders Mike had plowed a fireguard around their farm, but that was a mighty blaze and the wind was blowing it straight towards them. She surveyed the plot of land on which their buildings sat. The grass on both sides of the fireguard was knee-high and dried from the summer sun. Excellent fuel to receive blowing sparks and flare up. Could a narrow strip of black earth deflect that fire?

She screamed for her oldest daughter. “Annie. Come!” Then she thought, how foolish. What could either of them do. A wave of hopelessness washed over her. She thought her children, and of Mike. How would he feel to come home and find them all burned to cinders? There had to be something she could do!

In a moment Annie’s head appeared in the door. She looked where her mother was pointing. “It’s still a few miles away, but we have to work fast,” Mary shouted as she grabbed her daughter’s hand and hurried to the house.

“God, help us,” she cried as she ran into the one-room cabin. She shouted an order to her second oldest daughter. “Mary, you stay with these little ones. Annie, we have to do something. Molly and Christina, you stay right here with Mary and you all pray that God will help us save ourselves.”

“Won’t the fireguard protect us?” Mary asked.

“A fire that size could easily set the grass on this side burning, too, with all this dry grass around.”

“But what can we do, Mama? Shall we get buckets of water?”

Mary had no answer. They could hardly battle an inferno like this. Frantically she looked around, all the while praying for some answer.

Her eyes fell on the little tin matchbox holder tacked on the wall beside the stove. A plan popped into her head. “Come, Annie,” she ordered, grabbing the match holder.

Mary led the way and the two of them ran straight toward the plumes of smoke. They crossed the fireguard and waded into the thick grass that rustled against their skirts with each step. They ran about half a mile from home, then Margaret stopped and turned to Annie.

“Take handfuls of matches and go that way; I’ll go this way. Light them and throw them into the grass.”

They both turned to face their farm buildings and tossed lighted matches, ran a few yards and tossed more. Little flames burst out here and there; soon the grass was ablaze with tongues of fire racing on the breeze toward their fireguard.

The mother and daughter made a wide arc of flames until their match supply was used up, then they ran back toward the house. When they got to the fireguard, Margaret turned and saw the prairie blacken where their fires had already burned the grass. Song birds, abandoning their nests to the flames, rose up here and there.

She watched as the small fires reached the fireguard and burned themselves out. Silently they headed back to the house. They’d done what they could; now they’d gather the children and pray for divine protection.

Mike was hauling a load of fence posts back from town when he realized the danger he was in. Thankfully he was not far from a slough. It took no effort to get the oxen headed into the water once they got wind of the smoke. They pulled the wagon into the middle of the slough and there they waited, feeling the heat from those crackling flames as the fire flowed around them, hearing it sizzle at the water’s edges.

Mike thought of his helpless family at home and feared the worst. Would they have had any chance to escape? Had the fireguard protected them or would everything he held dear him be ashes when he finally got there? He almost wept as he sat there waiting.

Once the charred earth was cool enough to travel on he headed toward his farm again, his heart heavy with dread. Then he saw in the distance a miracle: in the midst of the blackened prairie there were his farm buildings still standing! The earth was black right up to the plowed strip of fireguard, but the buildings on the other side were as he’d left them this morning.

Incredible! Thank God!

When he got to the house his family rushed out to meet him and the girls told him how their mother’s quick thinking had saved their lives and the farm. Her little fires had burned away all the fuel so the main fire had nothing to feed on. It had to go around them.

The facts of this incident were written by Emma, one of the younger Boos daughters, in the book From Prairie Sod to Golden Grain 1904-1974, a history of people of Ernfold and Community.
This book was published by the Ernfold Senior Citizens Association.

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