The True Story of the Pulaski Fire Tool

And how that is related to the Big Blowup and the fires of 1910

Chrome plated pulaski presented to a retiring firefighter.

On this day 109 years ago the fires of 1910 were burning across northern Idaho, Western Montana, and parts of Washington and Oregon. But on the following two days, August 20 and 21, winds fanned the flames into large conflagrations that raced across large expanses of the landscape, creating what became known as the Big Blowup.

Ranger Edward Pulaski
Ranger Edward Pulaski. USFS photo.

During one of the fire fights U.S. Forest Service Ranger Edward C. “Ed” Pulaski told the 45 firefighters he was supervising to take refuge from an approaching wildfire in the 80-foot long Nicholson mine. When they began to panic in the smoky tunnel as the fire closed in, he drew his revolver, saying, “The next man who tries to leave the tunnel I will shoot”.
Ranger Pulaski’s name may have become lost in the dustbin of history, except for his penchant of tinkering with fire tools in his workshop. He became associated with what is now known as the pulaski tool that firefighters have used for over a century.

But perhaps he was given more credit than he deserved.

In 1986 the U.S. Forest Service publication Fire Management Notes published the article below about how the pulaski was actually developed.

The True Story of the Pulaski Fire Tool

James B. Davis
Research forester, USDA Forest Service, Forest Fire and Atmospheric Sciences Research, Washington, DC

The nickel-plated pulaski looks as good as new in its glass-fronted Collins Tool Company display case at the Smithsonian Museum of Arts and Industry in Washington, DC. Surrounded by equally shiny cutting tools of all description, the pulaski was first put on display at the Nation’s Centennial Exhibit in Philadelphia in 1876.

Conventional wisdom holds that the pulaski fire tool was invented by Edward C. “Big Ed” Pulaski in the second decade of the 20th century. Ed Pulaski, a descendant of American Revolution hero Casimir Pulaski, was a hero of the Great Idaho Fire of 1910, leading his crew to safety when they became imperiled. He was also one of a group of ranger tinkerers who struggled to solve the equipment problems of the budding forestry profession. However, the pulaski tool on display at the Smithsonian must have been made when Big Ed was no more than 6 years old!

In the early days of forestry in this country, fire tools were whatever happened to be available. The earliest methods of firefighting were confined mostly to “knocking down” or “beating out” the flames, and the tools used in the job were simple and primitive. The beating out, when such an approach was possible, was often accomplished with a coat, slicker, wet sack, or even a saddle blanket. A commonly used tool was a pine bough cut on arrival at the fire edge (4).

Soon farming and logging tools, available at general and hardware stores, came into use. These included 1986 Volume 47, Number 3 the shovel, ax, hoe, and rake-all basic hand tools developed over centuries of manual labor. Even after firefighting became an important function of forestry agencies, these tools were accepted as they were, wherever they could be picked up, and little thought was given to size, weight, and balance. There appears to be no record of the use of the Collins Tool Company pulaski for fire control. Most likely, it was sold to farmers for land clearing and may have been forgotten by the late 1800’s (2).

With the advent of the USDA Forest Service and State forestry organizations, a generation of “ranger inventors” and tinkerers began to emerge. It became apparent that careful selection and modification was essential for efficient work and labor conservation. In the early days when almost everybody and everything had to travel by horseback transportation was a particular problem. For years foresters worked on the idea of combination tools. Most of the attempts were built in home workshops, and most “went with the wind.” Two important survivors, now in general use, are the Mcleod tool, a sturdy combination of rake and hoe, and the combination of ax and mattock. The McLeod was probably the first fire tool to be developed. It was designed in 1905 by Ranger Malcolm McLeod of the Sierra National Forest.

Who first invented the ax-hoe combination and used it for firefighting is a matter of minor dispute. Earle P. Dudly claims to have had a pulaski-like tool made by having a lightweight mining pick modified by a local blacksmith. He says he used the tool for firefighting in the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Rocky Mountain Region in 1907. Dudly was well acquainted with Ed Pulaski, and the two had discussed fire tools.

Another account of the origin of the pulaski is that William G. Weigle, supervisor of the Coeur d’ Alene National Forest, thought of the idea-but not for firefighting (5). Rangers Ed Pulaski and Joe Halm worked under him <all three became heroes of the Great Idaho Fire) at Wallace, ro, then headquarters for the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. At that time, plans were being made for some experimental reforestation, including the planting, pine seedlings. As Supervisor Weigle planned the job, he decided a new tool was needed to help with the planting as well as other forestry work. He decided on a combination of ax, mattock, and shovel. One day in late 1910 or 1911, Weigle sent Rangers Joe Halm and Ed Holcomb to Pulaski’s home blacksmith shop to tum out a combination tool that might replace the mattock that was then in common use for tree planting. Halm, with Holcomb helping, cut one blade off a double-bitted ax, then welded a mattock hoe on at right angles to the former blade position. He then drilled a hole in an old shovel and attached it to the ax-mattock piece by means of a wing bolt, placing it so the user could sink the shovel into the earth by applying foot pressure to the mattock blade.

The rather awkward device was not a success as a planting tool. Probably the whole idea would have been abandoned had not Ranger Pulaski been fascinated with the possibilities of the tool. He kept using it, experimenting with it, and improving it. He soon discovered that the bolted-on shovel was awkward and unsatisfactory. He abandoned the shovel part and also lengthened and reshaped the ax and mattock blades. It is too bad Pulaski did not know about the Collins Tool pulaski — it would have saved him a lot of time. Nevertheless, by 1913 Pulaski had succeeded in making a well-balanced tool with a sharp ax on one side and a mattock or grubbing blade on the other.

Pulaski use now spread throughout the Rocky Mountain region. However, it was used not for tree planting but for fire control. By 1920 the demand was so great that a commercial tool company was asked to handle production.

Although the pulaski went into widespread use in the Rockies in the 1920’s, it saw little or no use in other areas. Prior to 1931 the USDA Forest Service had no good internal method for handling equipment development and promotion. Most new equipment ideas were introduced and discussed at the regular Western Forestry and Conservation Association meetings (3, 7).

By the mid i930’s, with the advent of the CCC, fire tools began to prolif20 erate, and the USDA Forest Service sought to standardize tools rather than develop new ones. It was at an equipment standardization conference at Spokane in 1936 that the pulaski tool was proposed for national distribution. The conference instructed the USDA Forest Service’s Region I to develop and further test a prototype suitable for servicewide use (6, 8).

Since “Big Ed’s” day the pulaski, as well as other fire tools, has undergone continual improvement. Pulaski development is an ongoing effort at the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Equipment Development Center. Careful engineering study, design, and testing have resulted in standards of shape, weight, balance, and quality (fig. I).

Although Ed Pulaski may not have invented the first fire tool put into general use or even first thought of the tool that bears his name, he did develop, improve, and popularize the pulaski. The General Services Administration now puts out bids for more than 35,000 new pulaskis each year — a long way from the prototype so laboriously made in Ranger Pulaski’s home blacksmith shop (1).


Literature Cited

1. Daffern, Jerry. Fire suppression equipment from GSA. Fire Management. 36(2):3–4-; 1975.
2. Gisbom, H.T. Forest fire-a mother of invention. American Forests and Forest Life. 32(389);265-268; 1926.
3. Goodwin, David P. The evolution of firefighting equipment. American Forests. 45(4);205-207; 1939.
4. Graves, Henry S. Protecting the forest from fire. Forest Service Bulletin. 82; 1910. 48 p.
5. Huh, Ruby E. How the pulaski became a popular tool. The Regional Forest Ranger-Part Four. Article on file: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington Office, History Section.
6. Lowden, Merle S. Equipment development and fire research. Fire Control Notes. 19(4);127-129; 1958.
7. Osborne, W.B., Jr. Fire protection equipment accomplishments and needs. Journal of Forestry. 29(8): 1195-1201; 1931.
8. Pyne, Stephen J. Fire in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1982. 654 p.

It was not part of the 1986 article, but here is a map showing the location of some of the large fires of 1910.

1910 fires Big Burn Blowup
The map shows some of the fires of 1910 in Idaho and Montana. USFS.

Video describes how fire in Colorado was managed to enhance forest health

Doe Fire video
Screengrab from the video below.

This video uploaded to YouTube on July 3, 2019 describes how the Doe Canyon Fire in Southwest Colorado was managed to enhance forest health.

It is interesting how the U.S. Forest Service has been recently using the term “good fire”. They probably think it means more to the public than some of the descriptions heard in the past, such as “fire managed for resource benefit”.

The agency is also increasingly using professional quality videos, like the National Park Service has done for years in South Florida, to educate the public about how they manage fire dependent ecosystems.

Fire crews assist with extraction and rescue of accident victim

Wells, Nevada

Nevada wildland fire crews assist vehicle accident
Photo: Wells Rural Electric Company

John Beinhauer of the Nevada Division of Forestry sent us this information about wildland fire crews assisting at an accident site earlier this week:

“On Tuesday, August 13, 2019, the Elko Interagency Dispatch Center received a request for assistance from the Elko County Fire Protection District for Federal resources to help with a traffic accident/rescue in difficult terrain near Angel Lake outside of Wells, Nevada.

“Task Force Alpha, on assignment at the Wells BLM Station, was dispatched along with a mine rescue crew from the Nevada Gold Mines – Long Canyon Mine. A single vehicle had rolled off the switchback road coming to rest approximately 400 yards from the roadway in steep terrain. Fire Crews assisted local personnel with patient extraction and transport to the waiting ambulance for transfer to the EMS helicopter.”

wildland fire crews assist vehicle accident
Photo: Wells Rural Electric Company

Two large fires north of Grand Canyon allowed to spread within predetermined boundaries

The Ikes and Castle Fires have burned a total of almost 23,000 acres

Ikes Fire Arizona
Aerial view of the Ikes Fire, August 15, 2019. Paul Lemmon photo.

Two wildland fires on lands managed by federal agencies north of the Grand Canyon have burned a total of almost 23,000 acres. Both fires, burning at about 8,000 feet above sea level, are being allowed to spread within predetermined boundaries in order to benefit the natural resources. (see map below)

The largest blaze, the Castle Fire on the Kaibab National Forest, has burned through 96 percent of the 19,368-acre planning area, consuming a significant amount of dead and down trees and some mixed conifer species. As expected with strong gusty winds on Friday, it became more active moving into pockets of unburned piñon-juniper and mixed conifer. The fire slowed once reaching confinement lines. A total of 32 personnel are assigned, which includes 4 fire engine crews. The estimated cost to date is $4.6 million.

map Castle and Ikes Fires Arizona
3-D map (looking west) showing the locations of the Castle and Ikes Fires north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Data from August 17, 2019 at 3:30 a.m.

The 3,500-acre Ikes Fire is burning in Grand Canyon National Park and the Kaibab National Forest. It has spread across 42 percent of the 7,785-acre planning area, with low to moderate fire behavior being observed. Firefighting resources assigned include 1 hand crew, 7 fire engines, and 1 helicopter for a total of 88 personnel. On Friday gusty winds prevented firefighters from carrying out firing operations. Crews patrolled the perimeter on the northeast and eastern portions of the fire while other personnel continued to prep the west side of Forest Service Road 223. Observed fire behavior was active, with backing fire along ridge tops and single tree torching. The estimated cost to date is $1 million.

The predicted weather for the weekend is warm, very dry conditions with temperatures about 5 degrees above average. Gusty west to southwest breezes are predicted for Saturday afternoon with light drainage winds overnight.

Firefighters Arizona Castle Fire
Firefighters on the Castle Fire. Photo by Jackie Banks for the Kaibab National Forest July 19, 2019.

Defense Department to use artificial intelligence to help map wildfires

Cold Fire
An engine holds the Cold Fire at a road, April 2, 2016. South Dakota. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center plans to use their sensor and automation capabilities to help provide intelligence about ongoing wildfires.

Below is an excerpt from an article at

…Defense has troves of sensor data, digital video data, digital infrared data and sonar data—all of which are attractive environments for machine-learning algorithms. Through this disaster-relief initiative, the agency plans to fly airborne sensors over wildfires in California and collect full-motion video data of the activity. At the same time, they are going to be automatically using a computer vision algorithm to detect which frames of the video have active wildfire.

Typically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other disaster-relief entities try to disseminate maps of the fire to all relevant organizations involved in the efforts once per day.

“We believe we will be able to cut that to about once per hour distributed over an app,” Allen said. “By switching to this airborne sensor, applying an AI computer vision algorithm and converting that to geolocation data that is useful for a map application we are also developing, we’ll really be able to make an impact for our users in a short time frame.”

The agency expect to begin testing this capability within the next few months with the National Guard.

The article did not specify how the intelligence would be collected, such as by satellites, fixed wing aircraft, or Unmanned Aerial Systems.

California sends firefighters into Mexico to battle wildfire near border

CAL FIRE engines cross border into Mexico
CAL FIRE engines cross the border into Mexico to assist firefighters in the suppression of a wildfire west of Tecate, Mexico. CAL FIRE photo.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has mobilized a strike team of fire engines to cross the international border in order to help firefighters in Mexico. They will be assisting in the suppression of the Border 8 Fire that has burned 1,500 acres very close to the border just west of Tecate, Mexico 23 miles southeast of San Diego.

The fire is a threat to cross the border in an area of the United States with steep topography and limited access. Keeping it from crossing the border would be the preferred option, rather than having to suppress a much larger fire in difficult terrain on the U.S. side.

The fire has been spreading to the east, generally toward the city of Tecate which has a population of 102,000 in its metropolitan area.

Air tankers have been dropping retardant in a few selected locations north of the border off and on since the fire started August 14, including S2T and C-130 aircraft from bases at Ramona and Hemet, California.

Border Fire Mexico United States California
Photo from Otay Mountain showing the Border Fire at 5:44 p.m. PDT August 14, 2019, and the approximate location of the international border (white line).

CAL FIRE may decide to activate the unstaffed air tanker base at Brown Field Municipal Airport which is 1.6 miles north of the border and about 16 miles west of this fire. It is 31 miles south of the Ramona air tanker base and has a 7,972-foot runway which according to information from the USFS “provides ample length to meet safe takeoff requirements for the size and weight of a Next Generation Air Tanker with a full payload”. The runway at Ramona is too short to handle many of the large air tankers. The tanker base at Hemet, which also has a relatively short runway, is 80 miles north of the fire.

The fire can be seen via cameras here and here.