WALLACE – No markers or monuments grace the mine shaft. Not even crosses for the men who died inside the tunnel of rock on that terrible, fiery night 94 summers ago.
Until recently, the steep trail leading to the Nicholson Adit up Placer Creek’s west fork was tangled by brush and deadfalls. The U.S. Forest Service had given up trying to maintain the path, even though it led to a place considered sacred by many within the agency and the larger firefighting community.
The narrow shaft is where Ranger Ed Pulaski and 45 firefighters found refuge from the “Big Blowup” of August 1910. Although five died in the tunnel, some consider it the birthplace of the nation’s troubled firefighting policy – a generation of foresters were imprinted with the tale and vowed that never again would such an incident happen.
Several residents from nearby Wallace have been working to preserve the tunnel and build a wildfire education center, a place where a wiser wildfire policy can be shaped to help prevent a repeat of history, said Ron Roizen, one of the leaders of the so-called Pulaski Project.
“Our philosophy is, if the Pulaski story and the 1910 fires got us into this, maybe the Pulaski story can get us out of it,” Roizen said. “We have to somehow emancipate ourselves.”
Members of the Pulaski Project worked with Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig to secure $300,000 in funding from Congress to rebuild the trail to the Nicholson Adit. The Forest Service expects to begin construction later this summer on a two-mile interpretive trail, ending at an overlook above the tunnel. The trail is now lined with orange surveyors’ stakes. It is expected to be finished by the end of next summer, said Jack Dorrell, who is leading the construction effort for the Forest Service. Because of safety concerns, the mine shaft will be blocked with steel bars.
Pulaski probably would have scoffed at so much money for such a short trail. In 1908, after he was appointed as the area’s ranger, he was given a federal allotment of $1,000 to carve 26 miles of trail. The famously taciturn ranger probably also would have balked at the retelling of the story. He kept silent about it, except for submitting an essay on his experience to a writing contest 13 years after the fire. Pulaski used the $500 prize money to pay for an operation for his fire-damaged eyes.
Much of Pulaski’s fame came not from the fire, but from a tool he invented that bears his name. The combination ax and hoe remains a fundamental tool for wildland firefighters.
Some of the brush and ferns have been cleared away in recent weeks from the entrance to the Nicholson Adit. Inside, the 70-foot-long tunnel is like any other cave: cold, dark and damp. Water drips from cracks and collects in pools along the boulder-strewn floor. In 1910, Pulaski scooped water from the pools with his hat to pour on the burning timbers at the entryway. Some believe the dead firefighters might have drowned in the shallow pools after they passed out from the hot gases and lack of oxygen.
Forest Service archaeologist Carl Ritchie extensively explored the mine shaft in the early 1980s in his successful quest to have the site placed on the National Register of Historic Places. “There’s nothing in there that says, ‘Pulaski was here,’ ” Ritchie recalled. “Just old mining equipment and the remnants of an old dynamite box.”
Apart from a few charred stumps along the trail, there are few obvious signs of the fires that tore through the area. The Big Blowup, as it’s known, happened during the afternoon of Aug. 20, 1910, when gale-force winds tore through the forest, causing hundreds of small fires to merge. Pulaski was on his way up the west fork of Placer Creek with a pack string to resupply a firefighting crew when the wind hit. Pulaski eventually rounded up 45 men. The wind and fire swept through the mountains “with the roar of a thousand freight trains,” Pulaski later wrote. “Many thought it really was the end of the world.”
Old-growth white pines and cedars exploded from the heat. Burning logs rolled down the steep hillsides. The smoke was thick enough in Billings, 400 miles to the east, that it blocked the sun. Entire towns across the border in Montana were being overtaken by flames. A third of Wallace burned.
Pulaski led his men to an old mine shaft he knew. As the firefighters fled the advancing flames, they were joined by a bear also running out of the forest.
The crew and two horses squeezed into the tunnel. One man panicked and tried to run for the entrance. Pulaski drew his revolver and said, according to numerous accounts, “The first man who tries to leave this tunnel I will shoot.”
Pulaski then attempted to cover the entry with wet stock blankets. “The men were in a panic of fear, some crying, some praying,” according to Pulaski’s account. “Many of them soon became unconscious from the terrible heat, smoke and fire gas. The wet blankets actually caught fire and I had to replace them with the others soaked in water. But I too finally sank down unconscious. I do not know how long I was in this condition, but it must have been for hours. I remember hearing a man say, ‘Come outside boys, the boss is dead.’ I replied, ‘Like hell he is.’ “
It was dawn. The men dragged themselves to the creek, about 10 feet from the tunnel entrance, but found the stream filled with ashes and too warm to drink, Pulaski wrote. The horses were alive but needed to be shot. Five members of the crew never awakened. Another could not be found until days later – search crews had repeatedly passed his charred body, but had mistaken it for a stump. Pulaski had been blinded and badly burned.
The Big Blowup killed 85 people; many were firefighters. Three million acres with 8 billion board feet of timber burned.
Pulaski remained the ranger in Wallace until his retirement in 1930. Apart from hounding Congress for a proper monument for the fallen firefighters, Pulaski rarely spoke of the fire, said Gerald Williams, national historian for the Forest Service. Many of the firefighters were buried in Wallace or St. Maries, Idaho.
“For years he was the only person who regularly tended the graves of the firefighters,” Williams said, speaking from his office in Washington, D.C.
For the Forest Service, the fires would not soon fade from the spotlight, Williams said. The agency had only been founded in 1905.
“It all of a sudden made stopping fire one of the big goals of the agency, which it remains today,” Williams said. “In that sense, it was a turning point.”
Before the Big Blowup, top officials in the Taft administration had been debating the best way to deal with fires in vast tracts of Western forest, said Stephen Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University and the nation’s foremost fire historian. Pyne’s 2001 book, “Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910,” explored how the fires shaped national policy for years to come.
Taft’s Interior secretary believed that some wildfires should be allowed to burn. The Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot, had another view. He called wildfire a “dragon” that needed to be tamed. “Like the question of slavery, the question of forest fires may be shelved for some time at an enormous cost in the end. But sooner or later it must be met,” Pinchot wrote.
The debate split the Taft administration. “Whether to light fires or fight fires becomes part of the political scene,” Pyne said.
There was little debate in the aftermath of the Big Blowup. For the Forest Service, the event became a “Valley Forge,” Pyne said. The only good fire was a dead fire.
“History is the result of lots of things happening. It’s very rare you can point to one person, one moment or one event, but I think the 1910 fires really were a catalyst. It affected how fire was managed all over the country and continues today,” Pyne said, speaking from his home in Arizona.
Every Forest Service chief through 1939 served on the lines of the Big Blowup, Pyne said. “They were determined it would never happen again.”
Agency attitudes toward fire began changing in the 1960s, but a fierce debate continues today over fire’s place in the forests of the West.
Pulaski’s home would be a fitting site for a national wildfire education center, said Roizen, with the Pulaski Project. The group hopes to raise enough money – $15 million is the high-end goal – to open the center by 2010. “It’s truly a sliding-scale proposition,” Roizen said. “We could end up with a kiosk at a flat area at the end of the trail.”
Ideally, the center would serve as a showcase for wildfire technologies and a place where Forest Service officials, timber company representatives and environmental groups could meet to help shape a new fire policy, said Jim See, a Wallace resident and founder of the Pulaski Project. “We would love to plop ourselves right in the middle of the different sides and try to enhance communication. Our feeling right now is they really talk past each other.”
Although the Forest Service already has extensive wildfire research facilities in nearby Missoula, “they don’t have Pulaski,” Roizen said.
“Our theory is if you build it they will come,” he said. “Particularly with people who have any connection with wildfire fighting, this story is sacred. People will come and do a kind of pilgrimage.”
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