Fire History of the Great Plains

Painting of a prarie on fire. A hunter and dog look at two men, two women, a dog and horses while a fire rages in the background.
Oil painting of a prairie fire based on James Fenimore Cooper's 1827 novel "The Prairie."

Alvan Fisher. The Prairie on Fire, 1827. The Art Institute of Chicago.

History of Fire on the Great Plains

Fires are a natural part of life in the Texas Panhandle and both humans and lightning have started fires for thousands of years. Below is a brief history of the role that fire has played in the history of the Texas Panhandle. Fire is common in the region due to several reasons. The region is in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains and averages 20 inches of precipitation a year. Most of this occurs from April-September. Strong winds occur throughout the year and are common in the spring with sustained winds between 20-30mph and wind gusts upwards of 50 mph. Outside of the Canadian River Breaks the region is flat. The region is home to hardy grasses, flowers and several trees. Lightning fires and human caused fires can occur throughout the year, but most often between December-April as this is the driest and windiest time of the year when vegetation is the most receptive to fire and thunderstorms are common.


Before humans arrived in the area (approximately 13,000 years ago), fires caused by lightning would have occurred across the region. Many of these fires would have spread across the region with little to stop them spreading. In addition to other environmental factors, these fires shaped the landscape. They helped limit the spread of trees and other woody species, encouraging the growth of native grasses and forbs. This helped shape what animals could survive in the region and what animals were attracted to the region. When humans arrived, they moved into a region that was prone to fire and learned to harness fire for foraging, hunting, and cultural purposes.As Paleo-Indians, and later groups, moved into the region, they used fire to hunt large game animals such as bison, deer and prong horned antelope. One common practice was to start a fire in a large circle that slowly burned inwards into a tight circle. This caused animals to panic and flee which tired them out. As they escaped the circle hunters waited to harvest the tired animals. It is also likely that they accidentally started wildfires from campfires. Certain animals, such as bison were attracted to burnt areas and fires were purposefully set attract them to the region or push them to a different area depending on when they burned a specific portion of the prarie.

However, people ocasionally started fires on acident from being careless around a campfire or not fully extinguishing a fire when they moved camp.

Around 1150, the Antelope Creek built houses and villages along the Canadian River Valley and its tributaries. They certainly experienced prairie fires and probably dealt with fires threatening their villages. However, by building close to streams of water, the breaks in the land provided some natural protection from wildfires. Given the historic role that fire had in hunting, it is likely that the Antelope Creek used fire when hunting animals as well.

By the 16th Century the Apache had forced the Antelope Creek out and moved into the region. Around 1700 the Comanche had acquired horses and forced the Apache out of the region. During this time, each group would have used fire in different ways based on their cultural use and view of fire. While most likely used fire for hunting, other groups that were more static used fire for agriculture. Depending on the culture, some tribes such as the Apache and Sioux used fire during warfare, while other tribes such as the Comanches were less likely to use fire in combat. Some tribes also set fires for enjoyment as they watched the fire spread across the region. Regardless of the use though, fire had an impact on the ecology of the region.


Once Europeans and European-Americans arrived in the region in the 1600s, soldiers, travelers and explorers started prairie fires by accident. Most were the result of out of control campfires or failing to fully extinguish campfires. Once trains arrived in the region, they became one of the common causes of fire as sparks from passing trains often caught nearby grass on fire.

After the Red River War of 1874-1875, American sheepherders and ranchers arrived in the region. Unlike Native Americans who lived nomadically or in villages along creeks and rivers, ranchers and settlers built towns on the flat tableland away from rocky outcrops and natural fire breaks. These fixed settlements were vulnerable to fire. Strong winds caused fires to spread across the open land and threatened to destroy houses, towns and take lives. In 1893 Baker Tomlinson and his family arrived west of Enid, Oklahoma. Baker left his wife and kids and went to town to register his claim. While he was gone, fire destroyed their wagon, belongings, and most likely killed two of the three Tomlinson’s. Because of fires threat to life and property and the desire to turn the region into a forested area, many Americans in the region desired to suppress any and all wildfires. Many Americans in the region viewed Native American use of fire to hunt and shape the land as “barbaric” and “uncivilized” and viewed any use of fire as becoming “uncivilized.”

Because of these reasons, many Americans on the Great Plains attempted to prevent all fires. In order to suppress fires, American settlers learned how to suppress fires on the shortgrass prairie. New arrivals in the 1870s had never dealt with wildfires on the prairie and learned how to stop fires by observing Native Americans and trial and error. One common method learned from Native Americans was to kill a cow and cut it open on the underside. Two cowboys tied ropes to the animal and rode horses while pulling the dead cow along the fire. One cowboy rode on the burnt side and the other next to the hot flames. Other people followed behind with wet blankets and sacks to beat out any remaining flames. They used backfires by setting a fire and burning it towards the approaching fire. The hope was that when the two fires met the fire would stop. They used roads as fire breaks and generally plowed both sides of the road and train tracks to provide a break. These practices are still used by fire managers today to suppress wildfires.

Because of the danger of fire to life and property, every man, and sometimes every person, was required to respond to a fire if they saw smoke. One large fire in the 1870s in the Oklahoma Panhandle prompted one thousand men to respond to stop the fire. Another fire threatened North Platte, Nebraska in 1893 and the entire town showed up to help. Because the fire was close to the town, they had prepared a train to evacuate the town if necessary.

From 1870-1950 Americans on the southern plains focused on stopping any fires that appeared. This changed the distribution of plants in the region as fires that had occurred naturally or were purposefully started were immediately suppressed and not allowed to burn. Plants that responded well to fire receded, while plants that did not respond well to fire increased. However, the most noticeable change was the increase of woody shrubs and trees. In the Texas Panhandle, honey mesquite dramatically increased in density and slightly increased in spread because of a lack of fire and the addition of cattle.

The lack of fire also led to hotter and more destructive fires as the amount of fuel (burnable material such as grass, flowers, trees, etc.) increased with each growing season. Across the nation, the National Park Service adopted a stance of preventing all fires regardless of cause. By suppressing all fires this allowed an unnatural buildup of fuels. This meant that when fires occurred, they burned hotter and were more destructive than if fires occurred during its natural cycle. For the Texas Panhandle, fires naturally occurred and helped keep trees from encroaching on the grasslands. This lack of fire was one of the reasons that led to a reduction in native grasses and increase of density of trees.


With an increase in more destructive fires the National Park Service started carrying out controlled fires in the 1950s with the goal of increasing production and efficiency of native plants and to reduce damage to property, life, and plants. Today, the National Park Service takes a nuanced approach to fire. The National Park Service suppresses all fires that pose a risk to life or property. However, the National Park Service now allows some fires that do not threaten life or property to burn naturally until weather or lack of fuel extinguishes the fire. This allows for the reduction of fuels, the increase of native plants, and the reduction of non-native plants.

The National Park Service also uses prescribed fires to help control the amount of fuels in parks. This allows fires to burn in a safe and controlled environment compared to wildfires and accomplish specific goals depending on when the burn is carried out. Prescribed fires encourage growth of native plants and reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires. At Lake Meredith, the Southern Plains Fire Group usually carries out prescribed fires during the late winter and early spring but will carry out prescribed burns throughout the year to meet objectives.

Carlson, Paul H. "Indian Agriculture, Changing Subsistence Patterns, and the Environment on the Southern Great Plains." Agricultural History, Spring, 1992, Vol. 66, No. 2, History of Agriculture and the Environment (Spring, 1992): 52-60.

Courtwright, Julie Prairie Fire: A Great Plains History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011.

Courtwright, Julie. "When We First Come Here It All Looked Like Prairie Land Almost": Prairie Fire and Plains Settlement." Western Historical Quarterly, Summer, 2007, Vol. 38, No. 2( Summer, 2007): 157-179.

Stanley, Charles R. B.S. Effects of Summer Burning on Texas High Plains: Vegetation by Charles R. Stanley, B.S. A Thesis in Range Science. MS thesis. Texas Tech University, 1997.

Umbanhowar, Charles Edward. Jr. "Recent Fire History of the Northern Great Plains." The American Miland Naturalist, Jan., 1996, Vol. 135, No. 1 (Jan., 1996): 115-121.

Last updated: March 19, 2024

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area
P.O. Box 1460

Fritch, TX 79036


806 857-3151

Contact Us