Constable: Blizzard? Prairie fires once were 'demons' in what's now the suburbs

  • Before farms and railroads segmented the prairie in what now are the suburbs, tallgrass fires could consume thousands of acres of territory in a single day.

    Before farms and railroads segmented the prairie in what now are the suburbs, tallgrass fires could consume thousands of acres of territory in a single day. Courtesy of Greg Spyreas

 
 
Updated 1/23/2022 8:59 AM

We suburbanites complain about the cold and snow. We're a few months away from griping about the heat and humidity. We dread droughts, fear floods, carp about coyotes, and are terrified of tornadoes. To borrow a sentiment from a Jay-Z rap classic, we've got 99 problems with nature, but wildfires ain't one of them.

That wasn't always the case.

 

"Strong," "fierce," "savage," "balls of fire" and "demons of the prairie" were just some of the terms used to describe the tallgrass fires that swept through this area for nearly four centuries before it became the suburbs, says William McClain, a retired botanist with the Illinois State Museum. McClain is lead author of an ambitious and thorough study titled "Patterns of Anthropogenic Fire within the Midwestern Tallgrass Prairie 1673-1905," which appeared in the most recent edition of Natural Areas Journal.

"I've always had an interest in these fires, and I was helping to put an end to speculation," McClain says. "They used to talk about how lightning caused these fires, but that's not the case with tallgrass prairies."

For more than 40 years, William McClain has been compiling research of tallgrass prairie fires in the Midwest. Now he and co-authors have looked at 795 landscape fires from 1673 through 1905.
For more than 40 years, William McClain has been compiling research of tallgrass prairie fires in the Midwest. Now he and co-authors have looked at 795 landscape fires from 1673 through 1905. - Courtesy of Angela McClain-Patterson

McClain, 78, started gathering material for it in 1980.

He worked on the study with frequent collaborator John Ebinger, 88, who was McClain's professor at Eastern Illinois University. Other co-authors are Greg Spyreas, a plant ecologist at the Illinois Natural History survey and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Charles Ruffner, a forestry professor at Southern Illinois University.

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The earliest fires found in the thousands of historical documents McClain scoured were started by Native Americans. "The Miami Tribe set fire to hunt bison," McClain says of a 1679 fire in Illinois. A "ring of fire" would trap the bison in a concentrated area where the animals were easier to kill with a bow and arrow.

"Sometimes they'd leave an open area for them to run through, and shoot them as they came through. A lot of tribes did this," McClain says.

Sometimes things got out of hand.

"They hoped the rain would put the fire out, but it didn't," McClain says of one out-of-control blaze. "It burned the whole prairie and put an end to their ring hunting."

The Kickapoo used fire as a weapon against intruders in Illinois in 1812. Disease brought by Europeans wiped out much of the Native populations. But the white settlers used fires to clear land for housing and farming, or to kill pests, McClain says.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While native tribes and the Europeans did understand the concept of controlled burns to keep fires from spreading, fires often grew out of control.

"They had no way to stop them. They burned hundreds and thousands of acres and more," McClain says. A blaze in McHenry County in the spring of 1836 was described as a "terrific fire."

"Now and then, people would get caught out in the prairie in a fire," McClain says, noting a family of five in Iowa "were caught on the open prairie and they all burned to death."

Cattle and other livestock also fell victim to runaway fires.

The fall of 1837 particularly was dangerous, with fires erupting almost daily in Cook County. On Nov. 20, 1837, "a fire started in Kankakee County, but it was driven by a southwest wind and burned all the way to Chicago that same day," McClain says.

The tallgrass prairies in the area that now are the suburbs were home to many devastating and quick-moving fires in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The tallgrass prairies in the area that now are the suburbs were home to many devastating and quick-moving fires in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. - Courtesy of Michael Vincent

The fall of 1843 saw many prairie fires sweep across DuPage County, McClain says, noting descriptions that read, "Prairie on fire for many miles." Another outbreak hit DuPage County in the fall of 1844.

A fire on Dec. 11, 1847, destroyed many acres in Kane County.

With dry conditions and winds gusts reaching 40 mph, fires spread quickly. A fire in Cook County on Oct. 7, 1850, spread to Wisconsin in a matter of hours. McClain found 1871 writings by famed Wisconsin meteorologist Increase Allan Lapham noting, "The wind was so strong from the southwest that it would practically knock a strong man to the ground."

Wind was a key factor in the Peshtigo fire that killed more than 1,200 people in northeast Wisconsin starting on Oct. 8, 1871, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. The suburban area also was ablaze that day.

"It's hard to envision all those prairies around the Chicago region being on fire, but they were," McClain says. The Illinois territory made burning prairies a misdemeanor in 1807, punishable by a fine from $5 to $100. In Kane County, a farmer's fire on Nov. 15, 1845, spread to a neighbor's land, destroying his house, 500 bushels of wheat, 500 bushels of oats, 15 tons of hay and 6,500 fence rails. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld a decision to make the guilty farmer pay damages, and that farmer's property was sold at a sheriff's auction.

Locomotives fueled by wood and coal sometimes sparked massive prairie fires in the Midwest.
Locomotives fueled by wood and coal sometimes sparked massive prairie fires in the Midwest. - Courtesy of Courier & Ives

The rise of steam-powered locomotives in the latter half of the 19th century led to some sparks starting prairie fires.

"There were still prairies around Chicago and they were burning," McClain says of the fall of 1897. "The smoke was so bad that boat traffic on Lake Michigan had to stop because they couldn't see."

During the 20th century, large farms, roads, canals, draining ditches and construction fragmented the huge tracts of tallgrass, making it more difficult for fires to spread.

The Biden administration announced this week it plans to spend $50 billion on measures to curb wildfires on the West Coast and Colorado. While smoke from those fires leads to colorful sunsets in the suburbs, we no longer fear out-of-control tallgrass fires here the way our ancestors did.

"They were burning up their crops, their houses, their livestock and sometimes killing them," McClain says. "That's unimaginable today."

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