Fire plays a necessary role in the natural cycle of prairie ecology by removing the mass of dead matter which impedes the growth of the young grass. Controlled fires are still used to do the job, but in the days of the first settlers uncontrolled wildfires could sweep across the prairies threatening all in their path. It was all the more frightening when it was rumoured that they’d been started by Native Americans in a bid to rid themselves of people putting down roots on their ancestral hunting grounds.
In ‘Little house on the prairie’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a prairie fire threatens not only the family’s livelihood but even their lives. Their story must be typical of that of many white settlers, except that Ma and Pa’s wisdom and strength in the face of adversity is truly exemplary.
Ma sees the fire first as smoke in the distance and thinks there’s about to be a storm. But Pa, who has been out ploughing, comes running to the house yelling for her to fill the tub full of water and put sacks in it. He puts the cow and calf in the stable. Meantime Ma is drawing up bucket after bucket of water from the well and Pa throws sacks from the stable for her to soak.
Then Pa ploughs a furrow all round the house. The sky is black as night.
‘That fire’s coming faster than a horse can run,’ Pa tells Ma.
This may be a slight exaggeration, but prairie fires can certainly move as fast as fourteen miles per hour.
Pa ties the horses that were pulling the plough to a corner of the house. Then he and Ma stagger to the furrow with the tub full of sacks. The fire can now be seen red underneath the smoke. Thousands of birds fly before the fire and thousands of rabbits, snakes and other animals come running or slithering.
Pa goes along the furrow he’s just ploughed, setting fire to the grass the far side of it. Meantime Ma follows behind him, beating out with a wet sack any flames which try to cross the furrow. Eventually there’s a ring of fire all round the house and both Ma and Pa concentrate on beating out any invading flames with the sacks.
The prairie fire is almost upon them, its quivering light dancing over everything. The little fire Pa lit has burnt a black strip. Now it backs slowly away from them, against the wind, crawling to meet the big fire until suddenly the big fire swallows it. The flames rise up high all around the house and then the fire roars past and away. Pa and Ma spend a while beating out small fires here and there around the house, but it’s all over.
‘The back-fire saved us,’ Ma says, ‘and all’s well that ends well.’
This is one of the most dramatic episodes in the book and it might not have ended as well as it did. Pa is glad for the easier ploughing in the wake of the fire, but the fear that the Indians may have been behind it is still there, especially as their camps were safe down among the bluffs by the creek.