Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Heroic Forest Fire Story: Ed Pulaski and the Big Blow Up

Every region and organization has its heroes, whose stories are told to new generations. Here in Idaho one of them is “Big Ed” Pulaski, the forest ranger who saved a whole crew of firefighters from a firestorm back in 1910. Yesterday the Idaho Statesman had an article about yet another book which tells the story, The Big Burn, by Tim Egan. Here is another brief version from page 21 of the 2007 book, Leading in the Wildland Fire Service:

“After hearing that fires had broken out in the Placer Creek area in northern Idaho on August 21, 1910, Edward Pulaski, a local forest ranger, came to the firefighters’ aid bringing food and medical supplies to nearly 50 crew members there. The men did not realize it, but they were situated on the edge of an impending firestorm and Pulaski was about to lead them from certain death.

Soon after Pulaski arrived, strong winds fanned flames toward the group. Nearby trees exploded into flame. Some of the men panicked and tried to make a run for it, but Pulaski stopped them and maintained order, promising the men that he could get them out safely if they would stick with him. 

Pulaski had been working on this land for the past two years, blazing trails and cutting fire lines; he had an intimate familiarity with every contour of the area. His comprehensive knowledge enabled him to devise an ingenious plan of escape.

With thick smoke choking the area, Pulaski directed each man to grasp the shoulder of the man in front of him so the group could stay together. Pulaski led the group through the forest, restraining anyone who tried to bolt, and eventually bringing the group to an old mine tunnel [of the War Eagle Mine]. Although some balked at going in, Pulaski adamantly insisted that the tunnel was their only hope of survival.

Pulaski coerced all the men into the tunnel and ordered them to lie face down just as the raging fire approached. Pulaski stood guard at the entrance with his pistol, beating back any terrorized man who attempted to leave, saying, ‘I’ll shoot any man who tries to get by me!’

During their five hours in the tunnel, four men died and the rest, including Pulaski, lost consciousness. After the fire passed, the men began to come around one by one, and began to rouse the other survivors.

Discovering the body of Pulaski, still at the entrance of the tunnel, a man said softly, ‘Come outside boys. The boss is dead.’
‘Like hell he is!” Pulaski bellowed.

Though severely injured – temporarily blinded, with seared lungs and badly burned hands – Pulaski survived the ordeal. He saved the lives of 42 crew members, and his leadership that day provides us a legendary example of the effect of a strong command presence.”

You also can read a longer version in Pulaski’s own words here. It is a great story that deserves retelling. 

His name also lives on via the Pulaski - a combination ax-mattock hand tool he later created. 

UPDATE June 20, 2016

The second verse of a new Steve Earle song, The Firebreak Line, on the CD So You Wannabe An Outlaw mentions Ed Pulaski.   

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