Prairie Fire!

Mary Boos was working in the garden that afternoon and stopped 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 turned to see where he daughter was pointing. Her eyes widened as she saw the white and grey clouds of smoke 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 – and 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 wide line of fire and the wind was blowing it straight towards them. She surveyed the plowed ring around their farmyard and noticed with alarm that 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. Something had to be done — that narrow strip of bare earth would never protect their yard.

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 ashes? There had to be something she could do!

In a moment Annie’s head appeared in the door. “Fire!” Mary shouted and Annie looked where her mother was pointing. “It’s still a few miles away, but we have to work fast,” Mary said as she grabbed her toddler and headed for 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 the farm.”

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

“A fire that size could easily set 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 mind. “Come, Annie,” she ordered, grabbing the match holder.

Mary led the way and the two of them ran straight toward the fire. They crossed the fireguard and ran into the thick grass that crackled on their skirts as they ran. They ran 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. The wind fanned these; 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. Rabbits, fleeing the fire, dashed across their farmyard.

The small fires they’d ignited reached the fireguard and burned themselves out. Mary and Annie beat out any flames starting from sparks that blew into the yard. At last the weary mother and daughter 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 toward the water as they felt the heat from those crackling flames. They pulled the wagon into the middle of the slough, sat down and waited while the fire flowed around them, sizzling at the water’s edges.

Mike thought of his family at home. Would they have had any chance to escape? Had his fireguard actually held this inferno at bay around his farmyard? Sitting there soaked with slough water, he berated himself for not making it twice as wide. Would everything he held dear him be ashes when he finally got there?

Once the charred earth was cool enough to travel on he headed toward his farm, his heart heavy with dread. But then he saw 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.

Word Press Daily prompt word: Flames

Story reblogged from Dec 5, 2013

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3 thoughts on “Prairie Fire!

  1. Pingback: No Flames For Us! | Christine's Collection

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