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Prairie Fires


European and American settlers faced many challenges in Iowa, from blizzards and disease to drought and death by accident.  One thing that scared everyone was fire. Prairie fires terrorized Iowans.  Neither roads nor creeks could prevent their advance in dry weather, wrote Sarah Brewer-Bonebright in Reminiscences of Newcastle Iowa.  No one could outrun them either.  Such fires could destroy everything a family had worked for in minutes, consuming crops and housing. 

“Sweeping with the wind, great tufts of burning grass were hurled rods ahead of the moving body of the fire,” she added.  Her family always prepared for fires, even if other chores may have been neglected.  Families plowed up strips of land around their homes and fields to serve as barriers.  They then burned off grass between the furrows.

William Porter Nutting remembered that such fires “go almost as fast as a horse could run.”  John and Sarah Kenyon and their family frantically battled a fire approaching their home.  They employed everything they could find, from rugs and carpets to a hoe to fight the fire.  “The flames roled higher [than] the waves on the ocean.  It looked awfull to me.  I was so frightened that I shook like a dog,” John wrote. 

His wife Sarah used wet bedspreads to defend the house and livestock.  “If it had not [been] for the female department everything would burn,” he wrote.  His beard and hair were scorched off during the four or five hour battle against the flames.  However, the Kenyons and their neighbors saved their farms without major injury.  Some were not so lucky.  Bonebright-Brewer knew of at least a dozen people killed by prairie fires in the early 1850s.