Trail Dust: Prairie fires were among hazards faced by pioneers

An ariel view of the Valles Caldera on Aug. 26, 2011, showing the damage from the Las Conchas Fire. While wildfire remains a danger in New Mexico’s forests, they once were more of a concern for pioneers who were traveling across the state’s prairies. Photo by Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Summer drought in New Mexico brings with it the usual crop of fires. For most people today, they are something remote, read about in newspapers and quickly forgotten. But on the frontier of the Old West, fires, especially prairie fires, were a dreaded phenomenon.

Let the tinder-dry open plains catch fire and, with a good wind to fan it, the blaze might rage for weeks and cover hundreds of miles. At night, the sky was lit by an angry red glow that could be seen for great distances by Indians and pioneers on the move.

Prairie fires got started in various ways. Lightning, of course, was often the culprit. But the sun could be blamed on occasion, when its refracted light on a piece of broken glass or bit of metal cast off by a wagon train set the grass ablaze.

Man, however, was responsible for the largest number of fires. For ages, Indian tribes deliberately fired the grasslands as an aid in hunting.

Cabeza de Vaca way back in 1528 saw Natives of western Texas using torches to burn the landscape. “They do so,” he said, “to drive off the mosquitoes, and also to get lizards and similar things which they eat to come out of the soil.” And he added: “In the same manner, they kill deer, encircling them with fires.”

Fires caused by white men were usually the result of carelessness or accident. Josiah Gregg, crossing the plains to New Mexico in the 1830s, tells us that one morning the caravan cook unwittingly kindled a campfire in the midst of parched grass and “it spread with wonderful rapidity.”

Fortunately, it broke out leeward of the wagons, so the wind blew the blaze away from the train. But the incident vividly demonstrated to Gregg and his companions that they ought to avoid camping in thick grass, lest Comanches set it afire and use the smoke to cover an attack.

On another trip, Gregg’s caravan was chased by an approaching prairie fire, and it escaped just in time by reaching a bare stretch of country, devoid of grass. “These conflagrations,” he wrote, “are enough to inspire terror and daunt the stoutest heart.”

Capt. Randolph B. Marcy, leading a military expedition across the Southwest in the 1850s, had an experience similar to Gregg’s. One of his soldiers carelessly caught the grass on fire, threatening the supply wagons. He declared that only the most strenuous efforts by his 200 men in setting counter fires around the train saved the expedition from disaster.

Great danger, he said, came from troops throwing a lighted match or ashes from a pipe into the grass while marching. Matches were just then coming into general use, so that was a new problem.

When a prairie fire struck, various steps could be taken in the emergency. Marcy mentioned one, setting a counter or back fire. The hope was when the two fires met, the progress of both would be checked and they would die out.

Another remedy was to turn out all hands and, using wet sacks and blankets, try to beat down the advancing edge of the fire. A few years ago, I saw this method used against a blaze in the Flint Hills of central Kansas. It only works if there is little or no wind.

Homesteaders on the plains of Eastern New Mexico or the Texas Panhandle had a practice that provided them a small margin of safety. They would plow a “fire guard” about 6 yards wide around their farmhouses and hope that a prairie fire would not leap this narrow barrier.

In fact, the fires often did. Sometimes they even jumped across fairly wide streams and rivers. The Arkansas River was one water course on the southern plains that could nearly always be counted on to stop a fire, but smaller ones were not so effective.

In the old days, the frequency of prairie fires actually kept the grasslands in good condition. They also prevented the invasion of trees and kept out the woody shrubs like mesquite that prove so destructive to the natural grasses. Early travelers on the plains often spoke of the almost total absence of timber, except on islands in the Arkansas that were protected from periodic fires.

With the open country now tamed by agriculture and ranching, and fires rare and small scale, trees line the banks of many Southwestern rivers, giving the landscape a much different appearance from that of a hundred years ago.

Quite a few of the early-day journals and memoirs left by Westerners present firsthand accounts of experiences with the destructive forces of prairie fires. Collecting those stories would provide material for an interesting book, one that could remind us anew of the hazards pioneer settlers faced.

Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.

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