Prairie fires were among a farmer’s worst fears throughout North Dakota’s early history. Uncontrolled fires commonly incinerated grasslands, because the dry prairie-grasses burned easily in the fierce heat of summer and early fall.
It was said that fire could fly like a race-horse through the grass and leap over barriers, with blazing tumbleweeds carrying embers to stacks of hay and straw. Sometimes only a river or rainstorm could extinguish a prairie-fire.
Prairie fires were started by lightning strikes, careless campfires, or sparks sputtering from a locomotive or a threshing machine. These fires could quickly rage out of control, spread by whipping winds.
The best preventatives against prairie fires were known as “fire-guards,” mandated by law in 1879. Fireguards were strips of land plowed up as a barrier to the fires. They had to be kept clean of vegetation.
At first, fireguards were to be 33 feet wide, encompassing each farmstead, and these fireguards were effective. Hence, on this date in 1891, the Grand Forks Herald urged all farmers to make “good, wide effectual fire guards” to ensure “adequate protection against prairie fires,” which could burn up wheat stacks “like tinder.”
Even though it was obviously impossible to prevent prairie-fires in sparsely-settled areas, a prudent farmer plowed fireguards around “his house, his barn, his stack of grain and hay,” and burned off any plants that grew up on those fireguards, thus providing “double protection to his property.”
Later laws required fireguards 66 feet wide, then 200 feet wide, and farmers made these wider firebreaks by plowing them or by burning them.
Most farmers made their fireguards by plowing a strip five feet wide on either side of the designated area, and then, when grasses became dry, they would pick a calm day and burn the intervening prairie. One requirement of that approach was to have “at least 4 men” on the spot, ready to put out the blaze in case the wind picked up.
Even with the fireguards, sometimes the Dakota countryside was “swept by a sea of flame,” and whirling winds filled the air with dark, choking smoke. These prairie fires roared past protected farmsteads with a loud noise, leaving behind a charred and blackened landscape.
With the days of untamed prairie a thing of the past, the danger is no longer as profound, but prairie fires can still occur. In 2013, strong winds pushed a prescribed fire across a mowed fire line. Having escaped into the tall grass, the fire consumed over 10,000 acres in North and South Dakota before it was finally stopped.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Make Your Fire Guards,” Grand Forks Herald, September 6, 1891, p. 4.
“Fire Guards,” Grand Forks Herald, October 9, 1879, p. 3.
“The Growth of Vegetation,” Ward County Independent, August 17, 1904, p. 4.
“The Laws: Prevention Of Prairie Fires,” Bismarck Tribune, March 26, 1891, p. 4.
“The Terrible Prairie Fire,” Bismarck Tribune, September 27, 1891, p. 2.
Linda W. Slaughter, “Protection Against Prairie Fires,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, January 23, 1891, p. 3.
“Prairie Fire,” "http://www.ndstudies.gov" www.ndstudies.gov , accessed on July 21, 2016.
“Prairie Fires Still Prevail,” Bismarck Tribune, March 10, 1904, p. 3.
Revised Codes of the State of N.D., 1905, Article 22:Prairie Fires, number 2075.