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Elk Burn YDSF

Elk graze in an area burned by the 1988 Yellowstone Fire.

Wildfires are part of nature’s cycle of birth, death and regeneration, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous killers. Writer Henry Erskine Smith learned that in 1893 near Yellowstone Park’s west entrance when he and his companions were startled by three coyotes (he called them “prairie wolves”) that dashed by their carriage. Here’s how Smith described fleeing a prairie fire.

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About noon, as we were emerging from a dark, wild, narrow canyon in cutting our way through the mountains, we were confronted with three prairie wolves, who were just entering the canyon we were leaving. They were fleeing with desperate speed, and seeing us they stopped short, gazing about them with a petrified stare, uncertain as to which course to take, but they quickly dashed by us, within twenty feet, and soon disappeared. “A danger signal,” said Jim, as he took an extra grip on his reins and stretched his neck. “A big fire we’ve got about us.”

True enough, for as we passed out into the open prairie we beheld a sight which sent a thrill of horror through us when we comprehended the situation.

We had been traveling westward, while the fire had been traveling in an easterly direction, and had already passed to the left of us and apparently closed up our rear retreat. The horses sniffed the air excitedly, looking about them in a wild, uneasy manner, their ears moving to and fro, as they nervously neighed to each other.

Away in the distance, where the prairie met the sky, a heated, quivering line arose, surmounted by a dark, wavering cloud. It was the prairie on fire! The wind was blowing almost a gale, directly towards us, and the long dead grass was as dry as tinder; the fire was plainly spreading rapidly, and, with a wild shout to the horses, Jim showed the stuff of which he was made.

Off to the right we shot at a furious speed, leaving the road and taking to the pathless prairie; a band of antelope, with eyes like fire, came rushing past us, adding to the excitement and fury of our horses. A glance to the left showed that the fire was gaining on us, as, with a horrible crackling sound, we could see the bright flames, twenty feet high, shooting upwards, and tongues of fire leaping ten yards at a time before the gale.

The fire was fast overhauling us. The dark rolling smoke soon overcast the sky above our heads, seeming to imprison us. Jim muttered something, and his face grew ashen, as the flecks of foam from our wild horses flew over his breast. It seemed as if our hour had come.

On we went, the fire momentarily drawing nearer, the billows of smoke each instant growing denser and the heat more suffocating, at times seeming as though it would blister our faces. Should we throw out our guns and traps and lighten the wagon? Not a word from Jim, but his strong arm and steady eye were intent on saving us, as we thundered on at terrific speed.

Shall we ever forget that moment when for an instant the smoke cleared, and we realized we were being literally encircled by the raging fire—caused by contrary and varying winds,—only about a quarter of a mile ahead, there was an opening of several hundred feet for our escape! Could we reach it before the gap closed?

Again the smoke wreaths whirled around us; our eyes were smarting from the heat; the panting horses, mad with terror, blindly rushed through the darkness, as we yelled words of encouragement to them. Could they hold out? It was a race for life! A few moments and we dashed through the opening, then not one hundred feet wide, and were safe!

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— Excerpt from Henry Erskine Smith, On and Off The Saddle. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.  Pages 14-18.

— Image from the Yellowstone Digital Image File.

— You might enjoy the National Park Service site, “The History of Wildland Fire in Yellowstone.”

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