Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Pulaski Tunnel Trail / Idaho

When your western U.S. road trip includes an Idaho vacation, there is a very historic trail called the Pulaski Tunnel Trail which not only tells a riveting story of what happened back in 1910 but also a story of a firefighting invention that was used to help save people in that year and is still in use today.

The Pulaski Trail Tunnel

Silver Valley's Kellogg Idaho, Courtesy Post Falls Man
The Pulaski Tunnel Trail starts about one mile south of scenic Wallace Idaho on Forest Service Road 456. The trail head is very well marked.

The trail offers a trip into history through the cool forest and past cascading water. There are interpretive markings along the way and to walk the trail and return usually takes about 2 to 3 hours. It's a chance to explore a great Idaho hiking trail and learn about what occurred there over 100 years ago. Wallace Idaho is located in far north Idaho on Interstate-90 in the beautiful Silver Valley.

Great Fires

The story goes back to the Great Fires of 1910 which engulfed the northwest, particularly in the Wallace Idaho and Montana areas. This was an era before smokejumpers and fire fighting tanker aircraft. It was a time when fire prevention in our nation's vast forests was not a high priority. It was also a time of railroad expansion and mostly unregulated logging which was cutting down our forests at a very fast rate.

The problem in 1910 was pretty much the same as in the late 1800's regarding the devastating fires in both Pestigo Minnesota and Hinckley Minnesota. The forests were being cut down at an alarming speed with no concern given about dry bits of timber being left to pile up until they were fuel waiting to ignite. Saw clippings and shavings were left on the forest floor and these too were excellent fuel for fires. All you would need to set things off would be a good prolonged drought with record high temperatures.

This prolonged hot dry spell was the setting for all three of these devastating fires. The source of ignition could be a simple as sparks from a passing train or lightning. While there had been crusaders for wise forest management, regulatory change and speeches and appeals were mostly falling on deaf ears. Countries in northern Europe had already adopted forest management techniques but the timber interests still held sway in the U.S. at the turn of the century. It would finally take another catastrophe and action at the highest levels of the federal government to force real regulatory change.

Early Fire Fighting Methods

Wallace after the fire
What were the methods in that era to fight fires? Not many. The accepted method was to dig trenches wide enough to try to contain an advancing fire and prevent it from leaping over to ignite more fuel. Today, when you see the measures taken in modern day fire fighting including the use of smokejumpers and tanker planes and how difficult even this is, you can appreciate how ineffective trench digging could be.

During the Great Fire of 1910 around Wallace Idaho there was total panic and confusion. People tried to leave towns by rail and in some cases even the trains caught fire. The Buffalo Soldiers were called from their nearby post in Montana to try to maintain order. Fire fighters who had been in the mountains with their primitive equipment were many times overtaken by the fast moving flames or found themselves trapped in caves that were having their oxygen sucked out by the fire. It was a life and death situation all around.

Ed Pulaski

Ed Pulaski, 1910
One man who had joined up with the very new U.S. Forest Service was Ed Pulaski.

Prior to joining the Forest Service, Pulaski worked many jobs such as with the railroad, mining and in ranching. In 1910 Pulaski was supervising his crew of fire fighters about 5 miles south of Wallace Idaho when the flames came raging toward them at a very fast rate. They were being chased by a backfire. Pulaski led his crew to an abandoned mine to escape the flames. By doing this Pulaski saved many lives. During this great fire Pulaski was credited with saving all but five of his 45 man crew.

Another key contribution Ed Pulaski made was the creation in 1911 of what we today know as the "Pulaski Axe". Sometimes it's referred to as the "Pulaski Tool".

Essentially it's a hand tool that is part axe and part hoe. In other words you can dig and cut with the same tool. It was an axe tool and a hoe tool all in one. Axe tools were needed to help fight wildland fires and you also needed a digging tool. It's widely believed that Pulaski, as a result of the 1910 fires, saw the need for better wildfire fighting equipment and invented this tool which is still in use today by the U.S.Forest Service. The tool is chiefly used to help construct firebreaks which is the way to contain a spreading fire. Some contend that a similar handle tool was actually invented in the 1870's but whether Ed invented or reinvented the tool, he is the one credited for bringing it to the Forest Service.

Pulaski Tool
In regards to the fire itself, it proved to be a wake up call for the government to pass regulations regarding the timber industry.

This was a time during which the Forest Service, established by President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, was in it's infancy. The Great Fire of 1910 which sometimes is referred to as the Great Idaho Fire helped provide additional needed funding for the Forest Service and bolstered the conservation efforts in our forest lands.

This great fire seemed to turn the tide in the way the government dealt with our precious natural resources. There was also a change in philosophy regarding wildfires. Aside from the need to protect towns and citizen's lives during wildfires, the old belief was to let them burn themselves out.

This too has changed whereby all fires are now fought. By the same token, forestry management progressed greatly. The more efficient and modern methods of course make this possible as compared to a century and more ago. Today's warning systems and mass communications usually prevent the heavy loss of life that occurred back in 1910 and the 1800's. Edward Pulaski's hand tool helped fire fighters in later years and is still a necessity for fighting wildfires in the 21st century.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)

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