Kansas is in a drought, and banks of the Marais Des Cygne River, a river that has swept through all of downtown Ottawa on more than one occasion, barely flows today at a depth of only 3.99 feet. The grass is brittle and dry, and small islands are poking through the slow currents of the river. Yet near the top of the levy, clusters of stunted chicory bloom, dotting the crunchy brown bank with patches of blue violet.
One weekend ago, Jim and I were following the historic driving tour of northeastern Franklin County. The golden fields were beautiful, but the land was dry, so dry. The creek beds were filled with dying weeds; the ponds were waterless cracked craters.
Kansas is in a drought. When Kansas is in a drought, all of that beautiful golden grass amounts to acres and acres of kindling.
She just had to shoot off her fireworks.
According to the Ottawa Herald, the fireworks stand owners wouldn’t allow her to shoot off her fireworks in their parking lot. So she drove up the road and lit her loot.
Kansans have a love/hate relationship with prairie fires. Controlled, they’re a valuable tool in renewing fields, burning out brush and returning minerals to the soil. Uncontrolled, they can mean economic, ecological, and physical disaster. Photographer Larry Schwarm has captured their mesmerizing magnificence. But the can also be very dangerous, moving too fast for people or animals to outrun.
Sometimes prairie fires are started completely by accident. A lightning strike. An errant ash caught in the wind. An overheated car pulled to the side of the road.
Her fireworks set off a blaze.
Nearly 40 acres were scorched. A hay field and thousands of dollars worth of hay bales were incinerated. A field recently planted with soybeans was destroyed. Little animals, like rabbits, were asphyxiated trying to escape. And 15 firefighters suffered injuries while battling the fire on a 101-degree day.
An elderly couple driving a white sedan pulled up with our truck as we studied the still smoldering fields.
The woman sat behind the wheel, shaking her head at the remnants of the field as the little old man next to her stared, open-mouthed, at the destruction. She told us that she lived on the other side of the highway. “I’ve never seen anything like this here,” she said. “I hope the person who is responsible for this pays.”
It could just as easily been her land. Her fields.
The fire was contained. Compared to other fires burning in Colorado and Western Kansas, it was small. But to the owners of those fields, to the animals who couldn’t escape, it was still a total loss.