Posted by: trevormeers | April 19, 2010

Flower girls of the apocalypse

(Dispatch #2 from a trip through cowboy country.)

The evening sun glowed against the red-and-white label of the box in my left hand. I rolled a match in the fingers of my right hand, finding the right angle to drag it quickly along the box’s rough side. It was one of those moments where you nearly grow dizzy with the realization of how quickly and radically we can change our lives with the right fleeting action. Sign the mortgage document. Click send on the e-mail to your boss. Twist the steering wheel. Miss the step on the mountainside. Tell the girl how you really feel.

My job was to strike the match and let it drop, glowing down and down like a comet into the shadowy hollows of the thatch at my feet. From there, the prairie would handle it. Gwen, one of the bosses of the Flying W ranch in Kansas’ Flint Hills, had stationed me here with my box of matches and orders to work my way down to the creek and up the hills on the far side. It was a little boy’s dream job: Walk into 1,000 acres of tinder and burn everything you can. It’s a springtime tradition in the Flint Hills, and a vintage Jeep armed with a water tank was patrolling somewhere on the far edge of the pasture to ensure our fire stayed in bounds. But even with the landowners’ sanction, it was hard to shake the sense that I really shouldn’t be doing this, like the time I shot the picture tube out of an old TV that didn’t even work anymore.

But Gwen and her 6-year-old daughter were moving away from me, heading toward their own designated match-tossing zone. So I set to incinerating the land with the fervor of a guy who doesn’t want to be the one holding up the hay wagon with his slow stacking.

I pulled a match down the box’s side and let it fall into the grass. Instantly, a flame arose, drawing its breath from the night air and licking out to the next stem of grass. In 30 seconds, it was the size of a dinner plate. I moved on toward the creek, tossing more matches, quickly developing a downward flicking motion that ensured the match went deep into the thatch with its flame still alive.

A hundred yards away, a group of amateur photographers wandered about in the smoke, their images distorted by the heat agitating the air between us. They pay money each spring to come out to a workshop focused on shooting the burn. They arrived at sundown wearing knee pads and elaborate harnesses loaded with lenses and camera bodies. Sometimes, they stayed out until midnight, chasing the fire lines up and down the hills. Through the drifting smoke, I watched them dragging their tripods about, looking like the pictures of Civil War photographers picking their way across battlefields.

They were confident out there, moving through grass short enough that the flames never got more than a foot or two high. To walk out into a fire like this felt like my first visit to an Alaskan forest. While it was a valid sample of a wild place I’d always dreamed about, populated with the same spruce and devil’s club and salmon berries you’d find deep in the Bush, it was, in fact, just  a ¼ mile mulched trail at a city park. I knew this fire was the same type of scale model.

In the pioneer days, when grass grew over a man’s head in the bottom ground, prairie fires were a Revelations-style scourge. They could move as fast as 600 feet/minute and burn up to 700 degrees F. Their sheets of flame reached five stories high and moved observers to compare them to armies, horses, trains and waves. Pioneers could see a glow on the horizon one night and spend the entire next day waiting for the fire to reach them. Settlers reported reading fine print by the light of fires a ½ mile away and feeling the heat of blazes 15 miles off.

If people weren’t on the prairie, of course, even such fiery holocausts would be considered relatively benign–in fact, curative. Without them, trees would take over and there would be no prairie. To grasses, which have about 75% of their biomass underground, the fast-moving blazes are something like a haircut.

But, of course, settlers did place themselves in the fire’s paths, squaring off in battle against an event much like tornadoes and blizzards, normal phenomena that played out unnoticed for centuries. And like the rest of homesteading life, the fires drew the ultimate performance from the settlers. In the face of a great grass fire, your only recourse was to fight back. Fleeing wasn’t cowardice so much as it was pointless. As the flames approached, a rush of elk, bison, deer, wolves, rabbits and even snakes would course by. But even these prairie dwellers died by the scores in the fires, birds sometimes burning up in the air, according to the stories.

The only option for fighting fire was to turn the beast upon itself, setting backfires to burn off a sanctuary with no fuel for the flames to feed on. Lore is full of stories of isolated cowboys and farmers who, caught in the open, did this on a tiny scale, burning a circle around themselves and hunkering down as the fire roared past.

I remembered all this as I worked my way up the far hillsides. Ever-widening circles of flame spread behind me from each spot where I left a match. I looked across the valley at Gwen and her daughter moving away from me. Trailing behind them were circles of flame, like signs of the passing flower girls of the apocalypse.

We met at the top of a hill and turned in circles, watching the burn play out around us. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought for a moment I saw a long line of cars leaving the area, then quickly realized it was a distant line of the burn, outlining a hill. I heard the Jeep groaning about somewhere down in the valley, and watched a photographer standing astride a fireline, working his lens.

The fire was bridled, neatly staying within the boundaries of the fences. I stood in the midst of a thousand burned acres holding my nearly empty box of matches and chatting with the 6-year-old who felt safe in the middle of it. All was under control for the night.

But throbbing in the back of my mind was a poem by cowboy poet Baxter Black. After several stanzas summarizing the terror of the prairie fire, he closes with a caution:

You can tell yourself, that’s crazy. Fire’s not a living thing.

It’s only chance combustion, there’s no malice in the sting.

You can go to sleep unworried, knowing man is in control,

That these little freaks of nature have no evil in their soul.

But rest assured it’s out there and the powder’s always primed

And it will be back, you know it…it’s only biding time

Till the range turns to kindling and the grass turns into thatch

And a fallen angel tosses out a solitary match.

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