Only a few weeks ago, a very intelligent acquaintance from the east, who had read many accounts of prairie fires, listening to an anecdote about one, commenced to question me about them. Just what do you mean by prairie fires running, he asked me? Why, I explained, when a fire starts in the dead prairie grass, even if there is no wind, it will burn and move out further and further in a sort of circle. If there is a little wind it will burn faster, and in the direction the wind is blowing. It will even creep up and toward a wind. That is what is meant when one says a prairie fire runs.
But why is there always a wind when there is a fire, he again asked? Because, when even a small fire is started on a still day, the hot air rises, and in a prairie country in a very few minutes cold air rushes in and the wind commences to blow, increasing with the extent of the fire.
What is the fire guard you speak about? Anything that stops a fire, such as a stream or a steep bank where there is no grass to burn. Early settlers would break, or plow, a few furrows around their buildings or hay and grain stacks. Then they would plow a few more three or four rods farther away and burn the grass between them. These two strips of furrows and the burned space between was the common fire guard made by early settlers. Any wide strip or field of breaking, or plowing, of course was a good fire guard.
Why would some fires burn over the entire country and others only burn strips or a part of the country? When a fire started on one side of a stream or a fire break and had to run slowly against the wind, it might die out, or could be whipped out easily. If it started on the other side with nothing to check it, a strong wind would often carry it faster than the best horse could run, and it would jump over all narrow fire breaks.
In the fall the thin Buffalo grass on the tops of the hills would ripen and become dry first, while the heavy grass in the bottom of the canyons, or along the banks of a stream would still be green and would not burn. In such cases a fire would follow and run along the tops of the hills and ridges, but not in the canyons. This would then leave these ridges as great fire breaks for the rest of the season.
What do you mean by whipping the fire? We would take any old sack, coat, garment or blanket and wet it, and swinging it like a flail, pound out or smother out the long trail of fire, commencing at one end or at some fire break, and try to whip it out to another fire break.
How high and wide would a line of fire be? From a few inches or perhaps a foot high, and about as wide when the grass was small or damp, to twenty-five or thirty feet high and about as wide, when there was two or three years of old grass and a strong wind.
How fast would a fire run, he finally asked? From merely creeping up against the wind, to fifty or sixty miles an hour when wind and grass were favorable.
The greatest fire of all the early days was on October 12, 1878. Father and brother Art with our team, and cousin Ev with Uncle Heman’s team, had gone to Grand Island freighting. Upon getting up in the morning, we found a strong wind blowing from the southwest. Soon we could see a cloudy appearance in the direction of the wind, and gradually it began to spread, and to reach our vicinity and we could smell smoke.
We knew a prairie fire was raging and, with the wind increasing, it would soon work around and jump all guards. The many guards might check it and turn it, and hold it in places from running with the wind, but nothing could now prevent it from soon creeping over the entire country. Much of the prairie had not burned off the previous year, and there was two years crop of grass in most localities, and dry as tinder. The wind had now risen to a gale of over sixty miles an hour.
Everybody was watching the drifting smoke. The air was becoming filled with ash cinders, pricking like needles. The sun commenced to darken, first like Indian Summer, until it was nearly hidden from view and everyone was scanning the southwest sky. Soon everyone was out with team and plow, making and burning (more) fire guards. But the wind was shifting back and forth all the time and no one could tell from just what quarter the fire would first reach him.
Cass and Eva Hill were staying with us children, and Cass and I jumped onto his two fast horses and rode to Watts Hill, a mile away, to see from which direction it was coming. Reaching there, we could see dark black smoke and flashes of fire on Boettger’s Hill eight miles farther west. Cass started for his claim and sod house, and I back home to try and burn fire guards on our north line where we had three furrows plowed.
We had a good field of breaking, which acted as a fire guard, west of the house. It was only a mile back, and the horse ran at wild speed up and down the hills and ravines, never checking for a moment, ‘till I slid off at the house where Eva and the small children were waiting for me. I had watched the head fire over my left shoulder, and as my feet touched the ground and I turned to look north, I saw the head fire reach the river northeast of us. It had run something over nine miles while I was racing on a fleet footed horse at top speed for one mile.
Grabbing a wet gunny sack and a handful of matches that Eva got for me, I ran to the north line where the few furrows intersected the creek and started my fire break. If I could burn out the corner of dead grass, weeds and underbrush of several years growth, and then back a few rods along the furrow, I might even yet check the approaching fire, now running more slowly and not directly with the wind.
But I had only burned a few rods when the wind changed, veering the fire directly toward me. I turned to run west and get out of the matted weeds, old grass and underbrush, where I might hope to meet the fire and run through it (where the grass was shorter) without tripping, but it was too late. Turning back I had barely time to jump into Mira Creek, six or eight feet wide, containing about a foot of water at the time. The fire, forty or fifty feet high and several rods wide, in the old, heavy and tangled grass, weeds and underbrush, was upon me.
I rolled in the shallow water to soak my clothes, submerging what little I could, and crawled furiously down stream toward and into the fire to allow it to pass over and by me, ‘till I could hold my breath no longer. Popping up my head I drew in a mouthful of hot air, smoke and cinders. Then I ducked and crawled on and finally crept out into the heat and smoke. With hair and eyebrows singed and clothes soaked and plastered with mud, I hurried back to the house. The wind had shifted and I could now easily run through the fire line. My clothes and back and ears were badly burned. I remember I went to Hastings to High School that fall and I did not get rid of my worst scabs ‘till midwinter.
I found our house, stable and bin of rye still unburned but still threatened by a side fire creeping up. Leaving these for the time, I joined George Clement and H. T. East and we hurried to Jud Davis’. He,too, was away freighting with Father. He had the only frame house in the valley, cows, hogs and large bins of wheat and oats. We worked hard and feverishly to save these but in vain. Another change of wind and all was gone except the house.
Retracing our steps to our place, now with these two men to help me, we again worked furiously for another hour, sometimes gaining a few rods, then losing it all again as we tried to whip out the remaining side fire creeping down between the creek and the road, a distance of only ten or twelve rods. Finally, after the fire had burned through one corner of our cottonwood grove and yard, and we thought everything lost, the wind shifted away from the premises for only a minute. Redoubling our efforts, we barely whipped out the remaining short line just as the wind shifted again for the last time toward us and our place was saved.
The next morning, somewhat recovered, I started as soon as it was light up the valley to find out what had befallen my uncles and grandparents. I met Uncle Heman (H. A. Babcock) coming on foot to hunt for Aunt Retta (his wife), Aunt Dora and baby Roy, who had started before the fire with a horse and buggy to visit Mrs. Travis up Mira Valley.
A more anxious man I never saw. He soon told me, as we hurried back, how he had lost his barn, cows, hogs and all his grain stacks and had barely saved his log house after the fire had caught inside; how Uncle Plummer Horr, the largest farmer in the valley, whose wheat field was one and a half miles long, had lost every stack, but Grandfather Bristol had saved his little house and belongings. He found later that my two aunts, with the horse and buggy, had been suddenly warned to drive to a nearby field of breaking, how they had run the horse at top speed and barely reached it as the flames licked the hind end of their buggy.
This is merely my personal experience. I cannot recount the thrilling experiences of many others. I cannot refrain, however, from barely mentioning the story of two heroes of that fearful day. Will (W. B) Green and Morris (M. T.) Green and their brother-in-law, Albert Cottrell, were up Mira Valley building a sod house. Ordinary furrows had been plowed and fire guards made. As they saw the mountain-like wall of flame approaching they attempted to burn additional guards, but the wind veered and the fire leaped all guards and was upon them. Their only recourse was to run through it. This they attempted to do and Will and Morris found themselves safely through but Cottrell had fallen in the fire.
If one needs run through a fire he always runs, if possible, directly towards the fire and against the wind. In this way he passes through it much more quickly and with more safety than in any other manner. The most dangerous and difficult way, is to run after and into it.
But there was no other alternative for the Green boys if any attempt was to be made to save Cottrell. Without hesitating a moment, both turned back into the fire and dragged out their companion, but it proved too late to save his life. Both (Green boys) were fearfully and frightfully burned. Will had on no shoes at the time and his feet were so badly burned that he could not move nor rise from the ground. Morris, who had his shoes on, managed to get up and attract the attention of Dan Fossey, a neighbor.
I well remember sitting up with them a few nights later. It seems to me as I now look back on it, there was hardly a spot on their bodies that was not a festering scab. I have never seen anyone so frightfully burned or suffering such excruciating pain. Both finally recovered, but Morris’ hands were shriveled and drawn at right angles the rest of his life. Will is still with us (in 1923), having held many positions of honor and importance.
The many tales of the speed of this fire and the fire breaks that it jumped seem almost incredible. One would almost think that the parties overestimated or even exaggerated the width of these fire breaks and fields that the fire jumped, were it not known that it jumped the North Loup River at, at least, two points and that the river is about 60 rods wide.