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 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, 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 proliferate, 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.

1942 typewritten account of the 1910 Big Burn Fires uncovered

Britt Rosso of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center discovered a 23-page typewritten account of some of the stories from the 1910 Big Burn fires that blackened huge areas of Idaho and Montana — the fires that changed the course of fire management in the United States.

Mr. Rosso describes his find:

As I was digging through some boxes at work, I came across a hard copy of this report on the 1910 fires. It was written in 1942 by Elers Koch, who was the Forest Supervisor on the Lolo NF in 1910. He created this 1910 fire summary so history would not be forgotten. It’s now posted on our LLC web site.

There are some amazing stories in here, and there are also reports from seven different fire crews on how they dealt with the “Great Fire”. There is a crew story in here about “burning off a large area…thinking that they would have absolute protection”. Maybe Wag Dodge wasn’t the first FF to ever use an escape fire.

Take your time and read it slowly.

Since documents at the Lessons Learned Center are known to be moved around and become difficult to find, we stashed a copy here for our readers.

One of the stories features the 30-person Moose Creek Crew led by Deputy Supervisor Ed Thenon, who wrote the account. (It is not clear what Forest Mr. Thenon was from.) They were working on a fire in Idaho in the upper Selway River area near Moose Creek. The sleeping crew, which was in an unburned area not near the fire edge, was aroused at 10 p.m. by debris falling in their area. Soon what one of the men thought was a “falling star” landed nearby and started a spot fire. When they could see the fire approaching they moved their camp and their food, or “grub”, to a small six-foot wide sand bar, or strip, in a creek that had water six to eight inches deep. Mr. Thenon told the men to lie in the creek and put wet blankets over their heads. Wet blankets were also put on their horses.

Below is a brief excerpt from his account. Click on it to see a larger version:

1910 Fires excerpt

Even though two men ran off and took refuge in another area, all 30 of them survived. However “the ‘lullaby boy’ was taken to an asylum”.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Mike.

Inventor of the Pulaski inspires musical

PulaskiBelow is an excerpt from an article in the Spokesman-Review:


“One of the best-known stories from the 1910 fire is the tale of “Big Ed” Pulaski, the firefighter who saved his crew by leading them to shelter in an old mine tunnel.

Now, there’s a musical about the unassuming Forest Service ranger from Idaho’s Silver Valley, who became a folk hero for his courage and quick-thinking. The work was commissioned by the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre for elementary and middle school audiences. “Living through the Fire” opens this month, with performances in schools from Wallace to Spokane.

Ironically, the show’s timing “had nothing to do with this year’s wildfires,” said Jadd Davis, the theater’s artistic director. “I’ve wanted to do a story about the Big Burn since last year. It’s an iconic piece of the Inland Northwest’s natural history, and there are a lot of interesting characters, including Edward Pulaski.”

“Living through the Fire” tells Pulaski’s story as narrated by his 10-year-old daughter, Elsie. The story starts when a fifth-grader is assigned to read Elsie’s diary for a school project, and flashes back to the summer of 1910, when wildfires burned 3 million acres across the Inland Northwest…”

Behind the scenes at “The Big Burn”

The Big Burn
Actors simulate taking refuge in Pulaski’s cave, during the filming of “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn”. Screen shot from the video below.

After the confusion about when “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn” would be aired, it now appears certain that it will be on PBS February 3. As you probably know, the fires of 1910 affected wildland fire management for the next 100 years.

Below is a “behind the scenes” video showing some of the filming as it occurred, and candid shots of the actors between shots.

It took 3 days to build Pulaski’s “cave” on the set. An excerpt from Timothy Egan’s best-selling book, “The Big Burn”, about which the film is based, describes what happened that day in 1910:

Pulaski led his men through the inferno, until, at last, he came to one of the old mining shafts along the creek. “In here,” he ordered, his hand on his sidearm, “everyone inside the tunnel.” After an agonizing moment of indecision, forty-four men rushed into the opening and threw themselves on the ground.

The Big Burn
An actor breaks for lunch at the filming of “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn”. Screen shot from the video above.

On January 25 we posted a 30-second video “tease” about the film. Back in September we first wrote about the film when it was scheduled to air on September 9. The videos still say “coming this fall on PBS”.

filming the big burn
Generating smoke for the filming of “The Fire that Changed Everything – The Big Burn”. Photo by Insignia Films.

Rob Chaney wrote an interesting article about the film for yesterday’s edition of the Missoulian. Below is an excerpt:

…The filmmakers scoured old archives of early fires and firefighters, and combined them with black-and-white versions of modern wildfire behavior. They also used animation techniques to make still photos of places like Wallace appear threatened by moving flames and smoke.

Explanations come from Egan, along with Montana writer John Maclean, fire ecologist Steve Pyne and environmental historian Char Miller. Buffalo Soldiers National Museum chief docent Charles Williams adds some fascinating details about the seven companies of black soldiers who played crucial roles in defending the mountain communities.

The story of a fire that burned more than 3 million acres in 36 hours would be compelling in itself.

But Egan’s research revealed how it happened just when the U.S. government was defining its role as a public lands manager. President Theodore Roosevelt and his champion of forest policy, Gifford Pinchot, were reining in the free-for-all logging and mining that threatened to shred the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains. And a large part of their strategy was the claim that forests could be cultivated and protected like farms.

On PBS: “The Big Burn” — the fires of 1910

The PBS television network is scheduled to air a program on February 3 about the fires of 1910 that changed wildland fire management for the next 100 years. The program is part of the American Experience series, and this episode is named “The Fire That Changed Everything — The Big Burn”. It is based on Timothy Egan’s best-selling book, “The Big Burn”.

When we first reported on this program there was much confusion about when it would air, with most of  the erroneous information coming from the PBS website. So, we can’t be certain it will air as advertised. However, this time it is showing up in my DirecTV program guide at 7 p.m. MST on February 3 — which is a good sign.

Set your DVRs.

Report: PBS to air program tonight on the 1910 fires

There are reports that the PBS television network will air a program tonight, September 9, about the fires of 1910 that changed wildland firefighting forever. The program is part of the American Experience series, and is named “The Fire That Changed Everything — The Big Burn”. It is based on Timothy Egan’s best-selling book, “The Big Burn”.

The video trailer above states that it is “Coming to PBS September 9, 2014”. The U.S. Forest Service Twitter account for the California Region said they were told it would be on PBS in the Bay Area September 9. And, we found an article about the program that said it would be on tonight from 9 until 10 p.m. ET.

But, we searched the PBS schedules for several cities across the country and could not find it listed. However, we found a PBS page for “American Experience” that said “The Big Burn” would air on January 1, 2015, and also “AIR DATE TBD”.

From the trailer, it appears that the program will be interesting. If anyone can confirm the air date for the program, please let us know in a comment.