One hundred years ago today the fires of 1910 were raging across Idaho and Montana, and it was the day that U.S. Forest Service Ranger Edward C. “Ed” Pulaski told the 45 firefighters he was supervising to take refuge from a wildfire in the 80-foot long Nicholson mine. When they began to panic in the smoky tunnel, he drew his revolver, saying, “The next man who tries to leave the tunnel I will shoot”.
The Spokesman-Review has an account of the incident:
Pulaski was with about 45 men on Striped Peak when the fire blew up. “A terrific hurricane broke out over the mountains,” he later recalled. “The wind was so strong that it almost lifted men out of the saddles, and the canyons seemed to act as chimneys, through which the wind and fires swept with the roar of a thousand freight trains.”
Firefighting became futile. “Boys, it’s no use,” Pulaski told the crew, according to one survivor’s account. “We’ve got to dig out of here. We’ve got to try to make Wallace. It’s our only chance.”
The men fled with the fire on their heels, a black bear racing alongside them. Trees exploded into flame, then toppled under 60 mph winds. One man fell by the trail, either hit by a tree, or unable to go on for other reasons.
Pulaksi gave his horse to an ex-Texas Ranger, who was limping from rheumatism. As they headed down the West Fork of Placer Creek, the fire surrounded them. Pulaski contemplated taking shelter in the War Eagle Mine, but discarded the plan when he realized the mine was still too far away. Instead, he led the men to a shallow opening drilled by miners called an adit, while he looked for a larger one – the Nicholson tunnel.
The men and two horses crowded into the Nicholson tunnel, but their feeling of refuge was short-lived. Mine timbers near the entrance were smoldering, sucking oxygen out of the shaft. Pulaksi wrapped wet blankets around the timbers and used his hat to scoop muddy water out of puddles on the mine floor. His hands and hair burned. The fire seared his eyes.
Over the next five hours, the fire raged. Panicked men screamed, moaned, convulsed and retched. One tried to strangle another.
“The tunnel became a mad house, a hellhole where five men would die,” Ritchie wrote in a Forest Service report.
Pulaski kept the frantic men inside the tunnel at gunpoint. Finally, the tunnel was quiet. The men had passed out, some never to awaken.
Drawing on his fire experience, the following year Ranger Pulaski invented the Pulaski tool, a combination of a mattock and an axe, which is still commonly used on wildfires.
Timothy Egan’s book about the Big Blowup fires of 1910, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America has become a best seller.
The Spokesman-Review also has an interesting article about the fires of 1910, including other stories about entrapped crews.
Here is a map that shows some of the fires of 1910, at least the ones in Idaho and Montana. A more detailed version of the map is HERE, a 2 Mb pdf file.