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Ed Pulaski and the tool he invented January 27, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, trail maintenance.
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Ed Pulaski

When I first got involved with trail maintenance 25 years ago, I quickly became acquainted with a tool called the pulaski. It’s about the size of a long-handled axe, but the business end of the tool has two sides: one side is an axe and the other is a grub-hoe. We used pulaskis for digging out water bars, cutting tree roots when digging, cutting small brush, shifting piles of debris. We were told that the pulaski was a firefighting tool. But I never knew the whole story until I read The Big Burn by Timothy Egan.*

Pulaski tool

The “Big Burn” was the name given to a tremendous conflagration that started along the Idaho-Montana border on the hot, dry, windy afternoon of August 20, 1910. Altogether, an area of about 3 million acres burned, about the size of Connecticut. There had been no rain all through that summer.  The forest floor was covered with slash from logging operations, dried out and ripe for burning. Small blazes had been sprouting up by the hundreds, and already thousands of men had been brought in to fight the fires. They were a ragtag bunch—ranging from eager college boys to immigrants to guys pulled out of the bars who needed a quick buck.

But even if the firefighting crew had been tripled, quadrupled in size, there was no way anyone could have dealt with what happened that afternoon. As Egan beautifully describes, it started with a wind called a Palouser that fed on the differences in temperature, moisture, and barometric pressure between adjoining regions of desert plateau and big forests. The wind built up furious strength and slammed into the already smoldering forests.

Egan tells the tale of the various pockets of humans who got caught when the world around them turned into towering flames. Some jammed onto trains leaving the area—shoving and pushing others out of the way. Some ran for a creek or a river, lying in the water with damp blankets over their heads, often to be killed anyway by falling, burning trees. Some ran for isolated cabins that burst into flames. And some found old mine shafts where they could wait out the conflagration.

Ed Pulaski, a ranger who’d been with the Forest Service since 1908, led about 45 men among burning trees toward the town of Wallace, Idaho. They stumbled down a steep ridge, some crying and screaming with fear as balls of flame jumped over their heads. Soon it became apparent they wouldn’t be able to make the town. Pulaski recalled an old mine tunnel he’d seen back in prospecting days. It was amazing he was able to find it in this overturned, disorienting landscape, but he led the men there. They dashed inside, but the air in the tunnel soon turned hot and stale as the flames right outside the entrance sucked the oxygen out of the opening.

Wallace, Idaho, after the fire

Pulaski ordered everyone to lie down, but they were choking and gagging. One man panicked, fearing suffocation in the small stifling space, and ran toward the opening. Pulaski knew that was suicide. He pulled his .44 revolver and shouted, “The next man who tries to leave the tunnel, I will shoot!”

They waited it out. Five men died, but the rest staggered out the next day. Pulaski had survived with terrible burns to his eyes, his head, and his hands, as well as damage to his lungs. He permanently lost sight in one eye. He and many others wounded in the fire hoped for aid from the Forest Service—they needed costly medical assistance. But the help that came was too little, too late. The Forest Service had been gutted, neglected, left with inadequate funds under the presidency of William Taft, who’d come under pressure from the timber barons to disband the agency.

In the end, the plight of the wounded firefighters came to the attention of the newspapers and the general public. It was an outrage! The mood of the public turned toward support of the young Forest Service, and it was an important rallying point for Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, the leading spirits for conservation of public lands. Still, the men who had suffered never did get the care they deserved.  An embittered Pulaski tended the scattered graves of those who had died, lobbied for a memorial, and pushed for a graveyard where the dead could be gathered from many locations. Six years later, Congress finally appropriated the funds for a granite slab engraved with the names of the dead. But it wasn’t until 1933 that a central graveyard was established and the remains gathered there. Pulaski died before he could see that happen.

In the meantime, he invented a tool that would come to be of great use for the firefighters of the future. And for trail maintainers. I will think of him now whenever I use a pulaski.

The "Big Burn" of 1910

* Timothy Egan, The Big Burn. Mariner Books, Boston, 2010.