Friday, October 19, 2012

A Note on the Extinction of Fire in Chicago

When they occurred, fires on the Midwestern prairies were so great that the conflagrations both terrified and exulted witnesses. Albert, Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VII of England saw one when he visited Dwight, a small Illinois town located in Livingston County in the center of the state, in 1860. It provided an excellent supplement to the pleasures of the hunt. On his first full day of hunting Prince Albert bagged eleven and a half brace of prairie hens thus winning a bet for him against the Duke of Newcastle who killed three fewer. The prince had previously dispatched a screech owl. In his account of the visit Nicholas Woods reported that during the visit His Royal Highness not only had great sport with the prairie wildlife but he had been fortunate enough to see a prairie thunderstorm, a tremendous prairie fire and a prairie sunset.

The fire started during an evening thunderstorm before the hunters could return to the town. The fire started in three different places and though it seemed at first that the heavy downpour would quench the flames, nevertheless the fire moved on until the three fires joined together to create a great infernal wall. Close to the fire it was as bright as noon even though by then it was nightfall. The prairie wolves howled as they sped from the flame and the prairie chickens rose and fell back again upon the flames. Since the winds were heading away from Dwight the prince was in no danger and the company watched the flames indifferently.

Though the royal party was safe, not all have been so lucky in their encounters with prairie fire. David Turpie (1828-1909), a US senator for Indiana, describes how he became familiar with prairies in the 1850s.  Commenting on the natural history of the prairie “blue stem grass” he noted that as a consequence of how dry it became in fall, thousands of acres surrounding the farms of the region became combustible. To protect the farms, neighbors formed fire-brigades which rushed to the protect the most vulnerable properties.  They set carefully managed fires close to the places to be protected thus depriving the wild fire of its fuel.

The strategy of setting a fire line was standard advice for protection against a prairie fire even if one was heading towards you when you were traveling across the prairie. The smoke of such a fire darkens the sun and roars as it moves across the land. This is what you must do: ride your horse ten miles in advance of the fire lighting the prairie at a couple of points as you ride. As the fire takes off you can follow after on the scorched ground. The fire from which you are fleeing will hopefully not cross that ground.

At the height of the growing season when the grass may be taller than the horse upon which you ride, the fires are ever more dangerous and out-riding it will not be possible. The solution: you can slaughter your horse and climb into his disembowel carcass. If you are not cooked within the dead animal you can emerge some time later after the fire has passed.

Nicholas Woods described the sunset that so delighted the prince in 1860 in almost supernatural tones. It had a “glory which can never be described or understood by whose who have not seen it”. The prairie turned to gold, the sky pink and red, the clouds crimson and all was still. And then the color left the sky and the embers of that great fire could then be seen. So supernaturally unnerving did it seem to Woods that it was as if the sun had gone forever. For all of this, it was nevertheless the prairie that was about to be gone forever, and with it the vast conflagrations that had arrested a King-to-be.

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