Here Miller shows a dramatic scene of the trappers creating a firebreak in order to protect their camp from an approaching prairie fire. According to Miller, trappers and Indians were attuned to the first signs: “a slight haze is seen near the horizon.” The trappers would drop everything and set fire to an adjacent area, burning all the tall, dry grass to the ground and beating it out with blankets. They would next move their gear and horses into the burned area, and then widen it with as many successive rings of fire as they had time to set. The fire would then “[sweep] round with the speed of a race horse, licking up every thing [sic] that it touches with its fiery tongue,—leaving nothing in its train but a blackened heath.”
Although prairie fires were a dramatic and popular subject, Miller’s image lacks the drama of contemporary paintings such as Charles Deas’s Prairie on Fire, (1847, Brooklyn Museum). Rather than showing personal danger or heroics in the face of nearby flames, or employing strong light-dark contrasts, bright color, or rapid movement, Miller focuses on the preparations. Numerous figures scattered across the prairie in the middle distance, each occupied with setting or putting out small areas of brush.