Engines No Use at These Fires.
Whoever heard of killing a horse or an ox as the first step to be taken toward putting out a prairie fire? What dweller in the Dakota has not heard of it ? For it is frequently done by the settlers of the new Northwest, where prairie fires are a greatly dreaded menace to life and property. It was the chief of a once important tribe of Indians who remarked, upon completing a sight-seeing tour through the principal cities of the East, “Good, heap good ; not so good as a prairie fire!” One who has never seen a prairie fire has missed one of the grandest sights. To the beholder who knows that no loss of life or property will result from it, such a spectacle presents a a picture of grandeur sometimes too awful to be really beautiful. If there were a policeman on every railroad locomotive in the Dakotas to act as spark arrester, the number of prairie fires would no doubt be almost as great as it is now.
The prairie grass of that region does not remain green until killed by the frosts of autumn, but ripens as do the small grains. It is plumply filled with an oily substance very nutritious for grazing purposes and highly inflammable. The exceedingly meagre rainfall and the entire absence of dews in the greater portion of those States serve to put the grass in the best possible condition for making a tierce, quick fire, when aided by the strong winds that almost constantly blow over these prairies. Every dweller in the great Northwest is more or less familiar with prairie fires. They have often at nightfall seen their lurid lights in the distant horizon, or by day their huge volumes of smoke rising and blending with the clouds, and many are even familiar with the consuming march of the flames themselves. Probably the first intimation the settler receives of an approaching fire comes from the falling of burned particles of grass that have been carried long distances by strong air currents. Later on smoke may be seen on the distant horizon, which increases in volume and blackness until the whole sky may be darkened, or, if the night be coming on, the flames will light up the whole landscape, and their glow will be reflected above. The wise Dakotan has his farm or ranch protected by firebreaks. These are usually made by plowing two strips, a few furfows wide and several rods apart, and burning the grass between.
There is but little likelihood of putting out a Dakota prairie fire during the day, as the wind, which is almost invariably blowing, and which the fire seems to greatly increase in force, never lulls till the coming of night. Then, though there is no dewfall in that region, the fire burns less fiercely, and may be at times entirely extinguished. The most successful method of putting out a fire, and one frequently employed, is to kill a horse or cow, and, splitting the carcass, drag it along the fire line and over the flames, which are thus extinguished. This is done by attaching long wire ropes to two limbs of the carcass, to each of which is hitched a horse on which is an experienced rider. One of these horsemen rides on either side of the line of fire, and by skillful reining they draw the body of the dead animal directly over the flames. Sometimes a fresh hide weighted down with pieces of iron fastened to it is used instead of the carcass of an animal. By this method a line of fire twenty miles in length may be extinguished in one night. Men on foot usually follow after the horsemen and put out any fire that may remain after they have passed.
The scene presented by such a company of fire fighters is extremely weird, and one which a beholder is not likely to forget. Fortunate it is if those interested complete their work before the coming of dawn, for if they do not the rising of the wind may send the fire leaping over the area of country they have labored to save, and blackened plains and the smouldering heaps that mark the sites of former ranches and homesteads will tell the oft-told story of the Dakota prairie fire. _