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Edward Pulaski: Heroic Firefighter and Inventor

The year 1910 was the driest on record in northern Idaho and western Montana. By spring, thousands of small fires were already burning in the densely forested hills and valleys of the region. On August 20 gale force winds fanned the flames into one huge holocaust which threatened to destroy dozens of towns in the area. Every able bodied man was drafted by U.S. Forest Service rangers to fight the fire to save lives and property. One of the rangers was Edward C. Pulaski.

Ranger Pulaski was born in Ohio in 1868 and may have been a great-grandnephew of Revolutionary War hero Kazimierz Pulaski. He moved west and became a miner, railroad worker and rabch foreman before signing on with the Forest Service in 1908. From the town of Wallace, Idaho he led a group of men into the woods to meet the fire, and other crews were dispatched elsewhere. But no one was aware of the fire's true intensity. Huge walls of tremendous flame and heat were racing up and down the terrain of hills and valleys, consuming everything in their path. Pulaski's crew, like many others, became trapped by the firestorm. Realizing that the fire could not be outrun, he was able to quickly round up all 45 of his men and lead them to an old abandoned mine shaft that he knew from his mining days. With suffocating heat and smoke entering the mine, Pulaski ordered the panicked men to lie down, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to leave. Eventually, they all passed out from the heat and lack of fresh air, but the following morning all but five awoke and made their way back to Wallace. Pulaski is considered a true hero in firefighting lore for this feat.

Drawing on his firefighting experience, Pulaski the following year devised a special tool. Tired of carrying two separate implements to fight a forest fire, one to chop and one to hoe, he combined an axe and a grub hoe. Now he could chop with one side, turn it, and hoe the ground with the other. It soon went into production and became popular throughout the country and became known as the Pulaski Tool. To this day it is still in use as basic firefighting equipment. He never filed for a patent on the implement that bears his name, so he never realized any income from it. He inquired about it in 1914, but gave up on the idea, saying he did "not intend on spending the money necessary to procure the patent."

Edward Pulaski told the story of his ordeal in the great fire to his wife, who wrote it down. He continued to work for the Forest Service for many years until he retired. He died in 1931. The mine tunnel where he and his crew took refuge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Having deteriorated over the years, the site and the trail leading to it are currently undergoing restoration. More details on the Great Fire of 1910 and Pulaski's heroics can be found in the book The Year of the Fires, by Stephen J. Pyne.

Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal

Recommended reading(s):

The Polish WayI recommend an excellent book about Polish history written by Adam Zamoyski, entitled: The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture

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