Many mornings, when the wind is just right, I've stepped outside into a hazy world. I can smell smoke from a prairie fire hundreds of miles away. It's a constant, not-so-subtle reminder of the danger we face every day. A prairie fire could literally wipe us out. It could destroy the grass, leaving nothing for the cows to eat. Or worse, it could kill the cows. It could burn up our haystacks, ruin our equipment, destroy our homes and other buildings, or even kill us.
Summer on the prairie always brings the risk of fire, but this year the danger is the highest I've ever seen. The lack of rain has turned the prairie into a brown box of kindling, and with high winds, a small spark could turn deadly. Every thunderstorm warning is a mixed blessing. We crave the rain, but any lightning means someone must stay awake and watch for fire. Our eyes constantly scan the horizon for any sign of smoke or flame. And it's not just fire on our own property. If any neighboring lands catch fire we will respond, hopefully before it reaches us.
To fight fire, we use an implement we can hitch to the tractor called a disk. It
is used in farming to plow the earth. In a fire it is used to create a
fire break, to prevent the fire from spreading. This is probably the
most valuable tool we have to fire fight.
My in-laws built a custom fire truck. They put a huge 2,000 gallon tank on the back of a truck and mounted a sprayer on the roof. I use it to water potatoes, but we've used it to put out a couple of fires as well. They also installed an enormous overhead water tank near the well that can fill the fire truck in minutes, instead of waiting for a garden hose to do the job. Time is precious, especially when your ranch is burning.
We also have an old pickup with a smaller, 50 gallon tank attached, which we call our sprayer pickup. We use it to spray fly killer on the cows in summer. We also take it to fires. Most ranchers have something like that, and they have to fill it with a hose.
If the fire is 20 minutes away from your water source (which is very possible when you have thousands of acres, especially since fires don't always stay on the roads and trails), and it takes 20 minutes for your tank to fill up, you would have to leave the fire for an hour at a time. If you had to fight fire alone, I don't know how you would do it.
I have seen three fires since I moved out here. The last fire was a neighbor's tree that was smoldering after being struck by lightning. My brother-in-law was still in high school, and on his way to school in the morning he noticed it. We took our fire truck down there and were met by the neighbor on the other side, who brought his chainsaw. The neighbor who owned the land never showed. We were able to quickly put it out.
The fire before that happened during a thunderstorm. By the time we got out there with our fire truck, it was raining, so it was mostly put out.
My first fire was quite dramatic. My husband and I had been married about a month, and were living with my in-laws. We had worked hard building our new house that day, and were very tired. Around midnight the phone rang and we heard footsteps upstairs. Lights came on and suddenly my mother-in-law was sticking her head in the room telling us there was a fire in a haystack. A neighbor had been driving around looking for fires and had seen it from his place. All at once we were in motion. There was no time to think, let alone panic. I didn't bring a hair tie, which proved to be really stupid, since the wind kept whipping my hair into my face. I think the first thing we did was fill the fire truck. The headlights were out, so I drove in front of it with a four-wheeler to light the way. From far away we could see the huge, roaring flames. We got to the haystack and my husband ran the sprayer while my mother-in-law drove. If you stood in the wrong place for too long you couldn't breathe. The smoke was thick and the fire burned hot. At some point she and I went to get the disk together, and then she made the fire break. My father-in-law used the loader to dig up dirt right around the haystack, while my brother-in-law used a tractor with graffle forks to move the bales that weren't burning out of the fire's path. Toward the end, my father-in-law was turning over dirt and using it to smother the fire.
I remember driving back and forth between the fire and the house. I called neighbors and watched for other fires. The only people who showed up were our neighbor to the north and the volunteer fire department from a town 70 miles north. The fire department consisted of two men and a sprayer truck. I assume they refilled out of our well. It amazes me that more people did not show up. In their defense, one of our neighbors was out of town, but the rest, well, how can they expect us to show up to their fires when they don't come to ours? Don't they care if their places burn up?
After the sun came up, things were under control, and my mother-in-law and I went back to the house to make breakfast for everyone. We made a whole bunch of breakfast burritos. They tasted amazing.
We started fighting fire around midnight, and we didn't come inside until about 3 in the afternoon. When we got home we all sat around discussing it. My father-in-law looked like a raccoon. He had black all over his face, except for his eyes, where his glasses had been. Everyone fell asleep about 5, but I couldn't sleep. I ended up driving around a little more, looking for more fires. It took a few more hours for the adrenaline to wear off so I could sleep.
Last night I noticed the sun has started to set just a little bit earlier. The days are getting shorter. I am relieved. Hopefully autumn will bring moisture.