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notwithstanding the imminent peril of prairie-fires, one is loth, irresolute, almost unable to withdraw, or seek refuge.
"I now thought of the spot on the banks of the bright Kankakee, where some years ago two young persons-beautiful, betrothed lovers, perished in the prairie flames, their crisped forms being found near that of their horse, next day, by a hunter. It is a rich, beautiful prairie-the river murmured along to leeward of them, but the flames outstripped their fleet charger, upon which both were riding, before he could reach the stream. Why did they not have the presence of mind to set a 'back fire,' and take refuge on the burned space?
“But I am back to the mound: will the remorseless flames leap along the high grass that has grown luxuriantly upon the sides, to the very pinnacle of this cone? Surely the wind is this way, and my horse is already restive-aye, but I've a match in my pocket, and it is easily lighted. Persons travelling in prairie regions should bear this in mind. But see that ocean of flame, I must look still again, even my little match has sent a lively current dancing from the leeward slope, and I am admonished to follow it; but in presence of such scenes, at such an hour, the sensitive mind feels its frailty, and instinctively awards the homage due to the majesty of his Creator, from the creature.
"Next morning I again visited this mound, rode over the charred grass-stubble to its top, the scene of so much terrific brilliance but a few hours before! Now all that was changed, the green-brown carpet was displaced by the black spread-the ravaging flames had consumed everything, black destruction sickened the heart in sadness-the keenest, darkest emblem of desolation that can be imagined; even the livid, confused glimmer, still almost trembled around the eyes, from last night's flames-such as gleaming lights leave upon the optic nerve; now it was painful to contemplate for a moment, the same expanse which a few hours ago, it required an effort to withdraw from its enchanting, but fearful sublimity-like the giddy fascination of the serpent which holds its victim in thrall till destruction overwhelms be yond escape is the charm of such spectacles. It was as if the destroying angel flew abroad, crying in terror-tones, breathing tempests of fire and smoke from his nostrils, that should awe and paralyze; I may not
describe-my pen is tame and dark-but would you realize such emotions-experience its force
"O fly to the prairies and in wonder gaze,
As o'er the grass sweeps the magnificent blaze,
So far Mr. Curtiss, to whose eloquent description of a prairie-fire we now subjoin several remarks, which, intended to form the conclusion of this brief sketch of the prairies of Illinois, we deem must be of essential service to those of our readers intending to settle on prairie-lands, by rendering them familiar with the measures of precaution they have to adopt, in order to secure themselves against loss of life and property, whenever such a conflagration occurs.
Conflagrations of prairies and woods are caused either accidentally or designedly, from wantonness, or with a view of bewildering the game; and often spread further than the incendiaries supposed or intended they should. Wherever extensive prairies are, one-half of them is burnt in spring, the other half in autumn, in order to produce a more rapid growth of exuberant grass, destroying at the same time the tall and thick weed-stalks, together with their seeds. The wind blowing to the side opposite the neighboring farms, the dry grass is frequently set on fire, it being supposed, (in fact it but rarely happens), that the flames would not spread beyond certain ways, ditches, or creeks; but a violent storm suddenly starting up from the opposite direction, drives the flames to the same, and, kindled to a tremendous heat, they spread with such rapidity, that riders on the fleetest steeds can seldom escape. The more violent the wind, and the greater the burning plain, from which the blaze spreads toward a neighboring farm, the greater also the necessity of burning back; that is, of igniting the grass or foliage of the woods close by the fences, in order to bring it to pass, that the larger devouring fire, upon arriving at the place already designedly ignited, becomes extinguished for want of aliment. In order to be able, however, to make proper use of this measure of safety, it is very essential, that every farmer should encompass with a ditch those of his fences adjoining the prairie, and clear a space at least twelve feet broad, of all trees along those situated in the forest
-thus preventing the withered leaves from accumulating. A much trodden road around the fences is of the highest importance, presenting, as it does, the best security against danger of fire; for the flames penetrating in even the smallest possible strip to the fence, the dry wood of the latter, kindled by the withered weeds, and the burning, whirling leaves, ignites with the most astonishing rapidity, firing, especially at night, the houses along the fields, ere their thoughtlessly slumbering inhabitants become aware of the extent of the danger, or even imagine it to be at hand.
The farmer, who, by the adoption of the above mentioned measures, has secured himself against ordinary fires, is also able to protect himself against very extensive conflagrations of the prairies or woods, by carefully sweeping away in the direction of the fire, all leaves that may happen to lie on the road, the grass and foliage on the other side of which he will ignite, fully convinced, that the blaze burning away from his hedges, will much less endanger them, than will that sea of flames waving from afar. Should the fences, nevertheless, be endangered, they must be torn down as quickly as possible, the fire being thus almost wholly prevented from spreading any farther. Should there be no road or ditch along the fence, and the soil be fit for the use of the plough, it would be advisable before firing, to plough several times along the enclosures, thus covering the dry grass with the largest possible clods of earth. When a large conflagration cannot be kept off by burning back, and there be no time to tear down all the fences exposed to the fire, acquiescing in what the hand of man proves too feeble to avoid, one should only break down that part of them nearest to the fire, in order to save the buildings, and stores of corn and provisions. Thus, a cautious, circumspect farmer, with the aid of his family, or men, can put a stop to a conflagration, that without much resolute action on their part, would have consumed and destroyed everything for an extent of several miles, as, we are sorry to say, happens here and there every year. Conflagrations of forests, during which the trees themselves stand in full blaze, only occur in forests of pine, fir, or other oily trees, and can only be stopped by large rivers, or heavy showers of rain, or be suppressed by the united exertions of the inhabitants of entire regions. Conflagrations of woods, during which the flames consume the dry foliage lying on the ground, may
be more easily extinguished. It is, nevertheless, often quite a tedious, toilsome job, on account of the clouds of smoke and sparks, which roll far in advance of the fire. With shovels, spades, and brooms hastily made out of brushwood, the farmers, almost suffocated with the smoke, and singed by the flying sparks and blaze, exert themselves to approach the burning line, and by quickly beating out the fire, to conquer in the very line of operation of the enemy; a position whence, in all directions, the fire may be beaten out with the above instruments. When the wind is moderate, the fire is usually extinguished by the united efforts of the neighboring farmers. It occurring, however, not unfrequently, that flames apparently beaten out, are kindled anew by the wind, it is necessary to run several times in the most rapid course along the extinguished lines, promptly to despatch the fire which starts afresh.
Should the conflagration, however, in spite of all efforts, visibly gain ground, extending for so great a distance that there could be no reasonable hope of extinguishing it, in the manner above described, without wasting time or strength in fruitless efforts, one should rather resort to the safer method, used in protecting the fences, of burning back—even if a part of the best timber, which at any rate more or less suffers from such fires, should be exposed thereby. The "nil desperandum" applying to nothing better than danger by fire, the superhuman efforts which are frequently made to avert with little or no aid, the most imminent danger by fires, can scarcely be imagined. Language cannot convey, words cannot express, the faintest idea of the splendor and grandeur of such a conflagration of forest or prairie, during the night; one would think that the pale queen of night, disdaining to take her accustomed place in the heavens, had despatched a myriad of messengers to light their torches at the altar of the setting sun, and that now they were speeding on the wings of the wind to their appropriate stations. If you know that the conflagration can cause no damage, you do not cease to gaze with admiration upon the magnificent spectacle, but the news of its approach to the vicinity of a farm, rouses the gazers as would an electric shock, impelling those present who are able to work, instantaneously to rise and rush to the threatened places, indicated from afar by volumes of smoke and flame. Should the fire be seen in the day-time, or at an early hour in the evening, the neigh
bors residing so close together as to be able to succor each other, then it is advisable, that one or two persons should plough along the fences, however distant the danger may be, whilst the others should immediately commence extinguishing the flames, so that, should the danger be increased by a storm suddenly springing up, the expedient of burning back might yet safely and successfully be resorted to.