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Prairie Fires in the Eighties

Manitoba Pageant, September 1961, Volume 7, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The tinder dryness of the West in the early summer of this year, and the long season of forest fires, calls to mind an earlier day when prairie fires could sweep unchecked across vast areas of grassland. The following paragraphs are comments on this menace, made by the pioneers themselves.

Excerpt from a letter written by A. E. Hetherington on May 1, 1881 from his homestead two miles south of the present town of Souris.

May 1st - It is a grand and awful sight to see the prairie on fire. I have read of prairie fires in books of adventure, now I have seen them in real earnest here, and I never want to be in front of one. It is something dreadful to see the sky lit up from east to west for miles; and it is so light you could almost see to pick up a pin. Although the fire may be so far away that you cannot see flame, the reflection from the sky makes it light. There was a great fire across the river last night, and I think it was the most weird and beautiful sight I ever saw. There was a great strip or prairie between the river and the Brandon Hills that had not been burned last fall. It caught yesterday afternoon, and the way that fire rushed along was something terrific.

A comment taken from a newspaper article on Virden, Manitoba published in The Manitoban, October 25, 1886.

Prairie fires have done a great deal of harm in this section of country and many farmers have suffered severely by them. One industrious and cautious man named Robert Bailey, although personally present and fighting the fire fiend to the death as it were, lost everything his farm produced save and except his wagon and oxen and half a load of potatoes, and was glad to escape with his life, worn and weary from his efforts to save his home. The same individual had his barn containing nearly all the farm product last year, struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Still he is not disheartened, but says there is no use crying for spilt milk, and he hopes his next and third effort may possess the charm that breaks the spell, and success may wait upon him. An-other gentleman lost almost everything he possessed from prairie fires, and his friends and neighbors were about to raise a subscription for him, but he absolutely refused to permit them to do so, saying he had hither-to always paid a hundred cents on the dollar, and he hoped with patience and perseverance still to be able to do so in the future without the aid so kindly offered him by his friends. When the people of this country are made of such stuff, what may not be expected of its future.

Page revised: 29 November 2009

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