I’m thankful for Ed Pulaski

Photo from the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council

For years one of my favorite trail work tools has been the Pulaski ax, similar to a small pick-ax with a blade on one side and a grubbing hoe on the other. It works great for digging out stubborn stumps and then chopping the roots so they can be pulled out, as you can see in the shot above.

I vaguely knew it was named after a fire-fighter who popularized it, but I never knew his amazing life-story until I read The Big Burn. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time, weaving the political story of the early days of the Forest Service with the personal nightmares and heroics of the biggest wildfire in American history.

Ed Pulaski was a grizzled woodsman in his 40s when he joined the new-born Forest Service as a Ranger in Idaho. In those early days Rangers were mostly young college boys from the East, so as a respected local who'd spent years outdoors as a prospector, rancher and railroad worker, Ed brought more credibility to the job than most.

In the summer of 1910, Teddy Roosevelt was out of office and without his support the Forest Service was being starved of funds. Since the year was unusually dry, there were spot fires throughout the Rockies, and not enough man-power to control them. It was so desperate that Pulaski, like many Rangers, ended up paying fire-fighter's wages out of his own savings.

On August 20th, hurricane-force winds whipped up the mass of spot fires into an immense burn, covering over 3 million acres, about the size of Connecticut. Ed Pulaski was leading a crew of 50 men trying to save the town of Wallace, and when it became clear the winds made the blaze unstoppable he tried to lead them out. The fire moved too fast, and they became cut off. Remembering a small mine nearby, he found the tunnel and led his crew inside as the forest was burning around them.

Standing at the entrance, he desperately tried to keep breathable air from being sucked out of the mine by hanging wet clothes as a barrier, and trying to extinguish the supports as they kept igniting. Finally out of cloth, and badly burned and blinded by the flames, he ordered his crew to get low to the ground to make the most of the breathable air. He had to threaten the panicked men with his pistol to get them to obey, and shortly afterward he fell unconscious to the floor.

After the fire had passed, the men stumbled to their feet. Five were dead of asphyxiation, and Ed was thought to be gone too until he was woken by the fresher air. Forty-five men survived thanks to his leadership, and they stumbled the five miles back to down on feet burned raw, in shoes with the soles melted off.

They found a third of Wallace burned, but most lives saved by evacuation. Other fire-fighting crews throughout the Rockies were not as lucky, with 28 killed in just one spot, and over 125 dead in total.

Ed never fully recovered from his injuries, but went back to work as a Ranger, with medical treatment paid for by donations from his colleagues since the Service refused to help. He fought for years to get a memorial built for the fire-fighters who lost their lives, and created the Pulaski ax as a better tool for future crews.

Ironically, the great fire was a public relations coup for the Forest Service. They used the heroic story of Ed Pulaski to push through increased funding, with the promise of a zero-tolerance approach to wild fires. This use of fire as a justification for largely unrelated policies set a terrible precedent that's come back to haunt us. Now most debates around how we should use our National Forests are fought by invoking the specter of wild fires on both sides. The lack of both regular smaller fires and logging has left us with a tinder box, and from my time with forest and fire professionals, there are no simple solutions. The only approach that makes commercial sense for loggers is clear-cutting easily accessible areas, and simply letting fires burn when there's so much fuel results in far more devastation than when they were smaller but more frequent. I'm in favor of letting the professionals figure out good management plans without too much political pressure to lean towards a pre-judged outcome. I'd imagine that would involve more selective logging, which wouldn't go down well with many environmentalists, but it's also obvious that's only going to address a small part of the problem.

Despite this political knot, I'm grateful that people back in 1905 put so much of America into National Forests. After growing up in a country where every square inch has been used and reused for thousands of years, I fell in love with the immense wildernesses over here. Even just a few miles from LA you can wander for hours in beautiful mountains without seeing another soul. I'm thankful we had dedicated Rangers like Ed Pulaski to preserve that for us.

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