The Last Windrow: A wildfire that hit too close to home

From the book "The Black Loam of Iowa" I've paraphrased a paragraph or two below that describe a prairie fire that threatened the Pat Walsh farm, just northeast of our Iowa farm.

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Wildfires. We had one in Lincoln Township long ago. The blaze barely missed our homesteaded farm.

Today we see wildfires across the West and other places across the country. Wildfires in places that once were wetlands. Wildfires in the desert.

In other years we've had them where I live in northern Minnesota and they are never something to look forward to. In many cases wildfires are devastating to anything in their path.

So it was on the prairie where my ancestors settled in northwest Iowa.

From the book "The Black Loam of Iowa" I've paraphrased a paragraph or two below that describe one such prairie fire that threatened the Pat Walsh farm, just northeast of our Iowa farm. The year was 1871. My paraphrased description reads:


"March 1871 came in like a lamb. Warm and dry. Pat Walsh was about his evening chores when he remarked to his wife, 'The air seems odd this evening. I smell danger.'

They had just finished supper when Pat suddenly sprang to his feet. The wind had changed and was blowing hard from the southwest. It brought a sharp, sweet tang to the air.

'Katie, that smells like fire!' Pat exclaimed.

Rushing outside, he saw far to the southwest a line of smoke, perhaps 10 to 15 miles distant. At the same time prairie chickens and other birds that should have been sleeping came flying high out of the southwest.

Small prairie animals, first some coyotes, then some foxes and jackrabbits came racing by in terror. They were followed by bands of white-tailed deer flying like the wind.

Pat had been busy days before filling with water a number of barrels that he had placed near his house and barn. He had a firebreak plowed in a great circle. It was 200 feet wide and ran completely around his buildings.

His neighbors had also plowed firebreaks around their farms.

Pat and his family could now feel the heat as the red line entered their south 80, a half mile away. Sparks and whiffs of burning grass carried by the wind fell within the farmyard. Pat and his family raced hither and yon with wet gunny sacks and beat out the fire.


The roof of their house started to burn. Pat was able to put it out with a wet sack.

The roar of the flames diminished as the fire line divided and went roaring by toward the scattered homes to the north." (End of paraphrase.)

Pat Walsh's farm was saved by his preparatory work of first plowing a firebreak around his farm and then by having barrels of water at the ready. Homesteaders had to think ahead as these were life-and-death situations.

There was no fire department to call.

My area of northern Minnesota has experienced many wildfires over the years and I've been witness to a couple of them. Usually they have happened during a warm, dry spring or a warm, dry late summer and fall.

One year in the early 1970s, Minnesota fishing season was actually closed during one such fall fire season. That was the year of what folks around here call the "Nimrod fire."

The fire began in the area in late September around that small community and spread quickly east and toward my community. It took a mighty effort by many to quell the flames, and most alive then remember the fear generated by that fire.

It was a close call.


As those early homesteaders did, a firebreak plow was implemented to create firebreaks in front of the flames. Those furrows across the landscape still exist in some places.

John Wetrosky
John Wetrosky (2022)

This year's cool and wet weather in my area should alleviate most forest fires. That is the one blessing I can think of during our long, drawn out winter weather.

But, we see many such wildfires now glowing in our western states and it is yet early in the season.

Fire season and wildfires can still come. I hope I don't see another one.

See you next time. Okay?

Opinion by John Wetrosky
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