By Caroline Clemmons
Several years ago, we lived in a rural area where grass fires were all around us. Tens of thousands of acres of ranch land west of us burned. Several times, the fires jumped highways and river. In fact, the fire came only a fourth-mile from our home. Of course, we were afraid, and planned what we would take with us if we had to evacuate quickly. My husband even created a fire brake around our home.
One fire started when someone burned trash, ignoring a burn ban. Sparks ignited the dry grass and spread rapidly. Volunteer firemen could only try to protect homes, but several were lost. Firemen were able to save numerous horses from a large barn.
As frightened as we were a few years ago, think how terrifying a grass fire must have been for pioneers and early settlers. No fire trucks, no fire hydrants, no large water supplies, no planes to drop water or chemicals on the fire. Possibly, there were no close neighbors to join in the battle. I can't imagine how horrible that must have been.
In my latest release, GENTRY AND THE MAIL ORDER BRIDE, Gentry and his ranch hands join with others from across the county to battle a fire started by lightning. In a release several years ago, BRAZOS BRIDE, a rancher and his ranch hands battled a fire started by the villain.
In this latest book, Gentry McRae and others battled the blaze with shovels and blankets. Each wore a bandana covering his mouth and nose as protection from the smoke. There was no protection for their eyes. Imagine how their eyes must have burned. Some used blankets or pieces of clothing to beat at the flames while others used shovels to toss dirt on the fire.
I found it interesting to learn that Native American peoples used fire as a tool to control the ecosystem. In this way they maintained wildlife habitats that sustained their cultures and economies. Burning practices managed, protected, and related to their surroundings.
According to sociologist Kari Norgaard, "Indigenous peoples have long set low-intensity fires to manage eco-cultural resources and reduce the buildup of fuels--flammable trees, grasses and brush--that cause larger, hotter, and more dangerous fires, like the ones that have burned across the West in recent years. Before fire suppression, forests in the West experienced a mix of low- to high-severity fires for millennia. Large, high-severity fires played an important role, yet their spread was limited by low-severity fires set by indigenous peoples."
Then, new people in the West interfered, with the very best of intentions. For instance, fire suppression was mandated by the first session of the California Legislature in 1850. Later, they made it illegal to use these low-intensity fires to manage ecosystems. Oops, "progress" struck out again.
The largest fire about which I read was the Montana-Idaho fire which destroyed over three million acres. This happened in the last quarter of the 19th century.
I've heard of starting a fire to burn a strip of land in hope of stopping the larger fire when it arrived. I don't know how long this has been a practice. If you were isolated, how could one family manage this kind of maneuver? If you lived on the great plains, you would probably not know about such things. You'd be working hard to build your farm or ranch into a satisfactory home, perhaps even a dynasty you plan to hand down to your descendants. A grass fire could destroy everything but the land.
The same vulnerability was/is true with those who lived in the mountains. A forest fire would be a nightmare. A beautiful woodland setting could be reduced to ashes with all wildlife either dead or moved out of the area.
What would you do--load the wagon and try to outrun the fire or try to suppress it? I'm certain I would have loaded what I could into a wagon and tried to outrun the blaze.
GENTRY AND THE MAIL ORDER BRIDE, Book 1, Texas Hill Country Mail Order Brides, is available at Amazon in e-book and print and is enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. Here's the link: