Huge Fire’s Anniversary Reignites Pulaski Legend

Huge Fire’s Anniversary Reignites Pulaski Legend

26 October 2009

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USA — This summer, the country was riveted by images of wildfires burning the southern California hills. Though modern wildfires are strong, none compare to the 1910 blaze known as the Big Burn. It charred three million acres of forest in Idaho and Montana and killed 86 people. It also sparked the legend of Ed Pulaski. He’s one of the main characters in author Tim Egan’s new book about the fire. The book and the fire’s 100th anniversary are bringing new attention to the Pulaski story.

In Idaho, the Great Fire of 1910 is one of the state’s most important historic events. Outside the state, it’s more of a faraway footnote. But author Tim Egan has brought it alive. He’s taking his enthusiasm for the story on the road as he promotes his new book “The Big Burn.” Here he describes the fire on KUOW’s “The Conversation.”

Egan: “I tell people it was an area the size of Connecticut that was swept away in a weekend. And hurricane force winds; 70–80 mile–an–hour winds, which you can’t outrun, whipped this thing up.”

Egan says 10,000 firefighters were brought in to fight the blaze.

Egan: “Mostly immigrants. Poor Irish, poor Italian, African–American soldiers, Buffalo soldiers. Doubling the black population of Idaho by showing up. They actually saved the town of Avery, Idaho.”

Some of the imported firefighters were assigned to Ed Pulaski’s crew. He was the ranger in charge of the Forest Service office in Wallace, Idaho. Amateur historian and Pulaski enthusiast Jim See says the ranger took his men to the steep hills above the town.

See: “A big wind blew up, a big hurricane force wind, and so he gathered 43 men and started back down, trying to get back toward Wallace. And either Wallace had set a backfire or the fire had jumped and so they got caught between two fire fronts.”

See says Pulaski knew the hills around Wallace pretty well, so he led his men into a mine and pulled his pistol to keep them from running out. Today, that spot is overgrown and quiet.

Reporter: “Placer Creek you can hear just a little bit below us. About 50 yards in front of me, across the creek, is this little mine opening. And he pulled them inside this little mine opening; it’s maybe four or five feet high. And he kept them there until the flames had blown past them and the heat had subsided enough that the men could get out and make their way back down to Wallace.”

Six men died that day. The other 38 survived. Fire historian Stephen Pyne says Pulaski won some acclaim for his heroic actions. His lasting legacy though may be the special firefighting tool that he invented, part ax, part pick. It bears his name to this day and is still used by wildland fire crews. But Pyne says Pulaski never got used to the public attention.

Pyne: “He was always reticent about it. He had to be persuaded to write up his own account of it. So, in some ways, maybe he would have been just as content to leave it as it is.”

Yet, years later, Pulaski is still remembered.

A phone rings and amateur historian Jim See takes a call at Mullan High School, where he’s a guidance counselor. He has brought the story of the fire and Ed Pulaski to north Idaho schools. He used a humanities grant to create a history lesson that’s now taught to fourth graders. He’s also the president of a group that raised money to fix a long–neglected two–mile trail that leads to the famous mine tunnel. It’s now officially called the Pulaski Trail. With the 100th anniversary of the fire coming next year, See anticipates the old ranger getting even more attention. He says the regional Forest Service office is planning commemorative events and so are the Idaho and Montana towns that were affected by the fire.

See: “I think the key one, though, for us is going to be the trail itself and the Pulaski story because it is the iconic story of the 1910 fire. So we’re right in the middle of it here in Wallace.”

See says his group may recruit actors and stage a reenactment of Pulaski’s dash to the mine tunnel next August.

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