WHEN PRAIRIE FIRE WAS FIRE
No Author Given
Parched prairies covered with grass as dry as wheat straw at harvest time has recalled to many old-timers in West Texas the prairie fires which once were the most dreaded scourge of the cattle country. When the Panhandle was comprised of big cattle ranches without highways or plowed fields, a Winter like the one just past would have called for constant watching by range riders for that tiny puff of smoke which might be followed a moment later by a sweeping blaze difficult to control.
Those who lived in this area in 1900 remember the one blaze which jumped the Canadian River from the north and burned to the vicinity of Groom before being controlled. The wind, they said, was high and fitful, whipping first one direction and then another, lifting embers across the wide sandy bed of the river to new footholds in the tall grass. Mrs. Carolyn Deason Timmons, of Amarillo, who has interviewed many pioneer ranchers on the subject, said the methods used to fight prairie fires were pretty much the same throughout the plains country.
"Go and fight," Mrs. Timmons said, "was the law of the range. The law was the same for men and women, and even children who were large enough to help. When a blaze was sighted every one who saw it went directly to it and began fighting with whatever they had, even their clothing. The grass had to be saved, Life for the cattle depended on the grass and the life of the people depended on the cattle." When a large enough force had assembled, Mrs. Timmons said, a cow or a horse was killed and pieces of hide were stripped off for flails. A fence post was used to spread the animals legs and flatten the carcass, then two or more cowboys would fasten ropes to the carcass and drag it along the line of the blaze. Only shod horses were placed inside the burned area. Men with flails followed to beat out any remaining sparks.
Backfires also were started along streams, ravines and roads where workers kept the blaze under control until it started its sweep in the direction of the uncontrolled conflagration. Food and rest meant nothing until the fire was controlled.
Those fires often covered a wide territory, moving at a pace of 25 miles an hour, or little short of wind velocity. One fire which started in new Mexico swept the prairie to the very outskirts of Canyon, near Amarillo. In 1899, according to Mrs. Timmons, a fire which started between Amarillo and Canyon burned everything in its path until it was near Goodnight, cutting a wide swath for 50 miles in less than two hours.
An occasional grass fire still may cause considerable loss in the ranch country but the cry of "Fire! The prairie is on fire!" doesn't mean what it did before there were numerous highways and thousands of upturned acres.
"One of the most magnificent sights that a pioneer saw (in Falls County, Texas) was that of the prairie grass on fire and the cattle running, trying to get to the bottom or timber land. I have seen the flames leap over them and keep traveling. It would only singe their hair. The settlers all plowed around the outside of their rail fences as a protection from prairie grass fires. When the fire hit the plowed earth it would die out, and in this way the farmers protected the crops.
"The hardest work our slaves ever did was fighting fire one Sunday afternoon. I happened to notice the flames going to the sky a mile away, and aroused my father from his sleep. The earth had not been plowed around our fields and father was very excited, as the fire travels so rapidly. He and the men set fire to the grass around our fences and whipped it back with brush brooms before the fire. The grass around the fences was shorter than the prairie grass. When the rolling prairie fire met the burnt grass two hours later it died out. The women helped by carrying water to the men, who were almost exhausted by the heat.
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For more on this subject see:
"Texas Prairie Fires" - Click here
"Fighting Prairie Fires on the Plains in the Early Days" - Click here
"Early Day Prairie Fires in the Panhandle" - Click here