Prairie fire was a constant threat during the long, hard days of a prairie summer. Fire guards, ploughed around the farm buildings and stacks, did not always stop a fire. This is the story of a Manitoba couple who fought desperately to save their homestead.

Ploughed Fire GuardOne day in the fall of 1886 a high wind was blowing from the northwest. In every home that day anxious men and women scanned the horizon for sight of possible smoke clouds. A long period of dry weather in combination with this high wind made a stray spark from smudge or campfire extremely dangerous over an area of hundreds of miles.

On one of her trips of anxious investigation to the door, Mrs. Charlie Findlay detected a faint odor of smoke. She walked around the bluff west of the house until she glimpsed the western open prairie, where at the skyline hazy smoke clouds were slowly rising into view. Mr. Findlay came in from the field as anxious as Mrs. Findlay.

Prairie Homestead Owing to two large bluffs, it had been difficult to plough an adequate fireguard. Under ordinary circumstances the creek sufficed, but today its shallow grassiness offered no ray of hope. To backfire in the face of that gale was too dangerous to attempt. They watched the clouds of smoke roll up nearer and denser. Now they could hear the fire’s dreadful roar. They had not been idle while watching the approach of the fire, but every available barrel, pail, and kitchen utensil was full of water, and grain sacks were soaked in water ready for the coming battle with the flames.

Fighting a Prairie fireWith strenuous beating of the wet sacks, they checked the fire in the open space between the bluff. The roar and crackle of the flames, the choking volume of smoke, and now the intense heat drove the firefighters back to the bluff. Their hope now was that the green poplars would not prove to be fuel for the flames. Alas, the greedy flames leaped from tree to tree, feeding on the leaves and small branches.

Water soaked sacks and vessels filled with water were assembled near the house for one last struggle to save their home. While the fire monster roared through the trees, the furniture of the house was hastily carried out and deposited on a piece of freshly ploughed breaking nearby. The children were told to stay there too, quite out of harm’s way, and then the parents, with no thought of themselves, turned for one more battle with the dread enemy.

Keeping close watch that the thatch on the roof was not ignited by the flames in the grass and underbrush, they dashed back and forth from flames to water to dip their sacks until the last drop was gone. Not giving up, however, they rushed down the slope to a slough nearby for a fresh supply. They madly beat out the flames only to see them burst out somewhere else along the line that was creeping closer and closer to the house. Then all of a sudden, they felt a breath of fresh air in their faces, and the smoke changed and blew away from them. The wind had changed and now became their ally, bringing victory to Findlays and defeat to the prairie fire.

Brydon, Mrs. Charles. “Edgehill History”. Courtesy of the Hudson Bay Archives, Provincinal Archives of Manitoba.
Photo Credits:
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development [Ploughed Fire Guard]
Costume Museum of Canada, Photograph [Prairie Homestead #A23.26]
Glenbow Archives [Fighting a Prairie fire NA-1502-1]
Online Exhibits