So I’ve been reading Julie Courtwright‘s book Prairie Fire: A Great Plains History. (Reading time is a premium with a baby around, so it is going slowly.) It has struck me as I reached the middle of the book how much a part of life fire was for the early settlers on the plains. Courtwright wrote about new settlers starting fires willy nilly while more seasoned residents learned to be more cautious and intentional. Many of them learned from their indigenous neighbors that fire can be important for food acquisition and production as well as useful to protect property and lives from someone else’s fire. Settlers were skilled at protection measures and fire fighting out of necessity. The dangers of fire were a reality and neighbors had to work together to keep each other safe. She wrote about school children being sent to school with a box of matches so they could light a defensive backfire should it be necessary. The most impressive trips to school for me only required my knowledge of how to work a snow suit and boots on snowy rides to school in WI. I can emphasize with the leaders of the time for restricting their constituents from burning at certain times of the year or under particular conditions, much like our present day burn bans.
As a former student of anthropology, I should make clear what I mean by culture. It is the belief system and customs of a society. What does “fire culture” mean, then? Fire was so much a part of life on the plains that using it and defending against it were part of daily activity planning, fears and hopes, annual work and activity schedules and more.
Fire had value as well as risk for settlers of the plains as well as current residents. Stephen Pyne, fire historian, often discusses how we’ve eradicated fire not only from wildlands, but also from our homes. We don’t see the furnace burning or the stove flaming much less a wildfire or prescribed fire (except on TV). We are physically removed from combustion in our homes, if there is any at all. Consequently, we have lost in our common understanding of fire the notion that its not all bad and the skills to live in a fire prone landscape successfully.
It seems that as life became more specialized, we have left it to the professionals to put out the fires. Individual responsibility for fire proofing our properties is something that we are now trying to teach home owners and communities. Just as the seasoned settlers had to teach the newcomers to the region how to be responsible with fire, long-timers in the region are still a resource of knowledge on how to burn the range, build a fire break, and more.
Fire cultures are making a come back in the region. There are 59 burn cooperatives now in the Great Plains. The Edwards Plateau Burn Association started a regional trend when they formed many years ago. These groups are neighbors helping neighbors to train each other, share resources, and get burning done safely in the region. The trend is so strong that there have even been efforts to organize on a regional level.
One person at a time we are relearning how to live with fire in the Great Plains. Is fire a part of your life? How do you use it or avoid it?