Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Vintage magazine highlights Idaho fires

Hero who invented fire-fighting tool saved dozens

Express Staff Writer

A recent purchase of a vintage 1954 copy of the now defunct Holiday magazine highlighting Idaho on the cover revealed a storied history of fighting fires and the heroes that went with the fights.

The magazine was discovered at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum. It included a multi-page, color article by author and screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr.

"Take a parched and breezy August day with the conifers like tinder and dry thunderheads sailing up!" Guthrie writes. "Everything is fire, and maybe anxious in regional office or ranger station or makeshift camp, the men will talk of famous fires in Idaho."

The author writes of a summer day in 1931 when careless campers ignited a blaze.

"In one blazing white-and-red-hot afternoon 22,000 acres of fine timber, mostly white pine, went up in smoke. By extraordinary work the Forest Service got the blaze in hand and later came along with plantings that have thrived. You can still see dead, black trunks, though, and moldering stumps, and you can mark the course of the fire which foresters refer to as the Freeman Lake burn. It occurred about six miles north of the little town of Priest River."

Guthrie's article goes on to describe a much earlier deadly fire in the state with a hero whose namesake is one of the most important and ubiquitous tools a firefighter has at his or her disposal.

"Worse was the fire of 1910, which laid waste not only part of north Idaho but parts of Eastern Washington and Western Montana as well. It is an individual, though, a ranger, a man, that emerges first from the midst of history. His name is E.C. Pulaski, and he was in charge of forty firefighters whose fire lines southwest of Wallace were broken by a sudden gale.

"He ordered a retreat toward the town, to find there was no avenue of retreat. On all sides the fire raged. The one hope of survival was a small mine tunnel that Pulaski knew about. Go there, he said."

People act strangely and even "insanely" during forest fires, Guthrie writes.

"Now, and later in the smoldering tunnel, men screamed for help from someone, any someone ... They shouted they were dying. One refused to enter the tunnel."

Others tried to break out of the tunnel, but Pulaski would not let them.

"By example and by word¾and persuasion with his revolver¾he saved the lives of all but six, though himself blinded in one eye."

Later a camp cook recounted the story to a Spokane newspaper. A supervisor told the cook his pay was 25 cents an hour but the cook was allowed to put down 24-hours-a-day on his pay card to be better compensated for the ordeal, Guthrie wrote.

E.C. Pulaski's name lives on in fire-fighting history. He is credited with inventing, or re-inventing, a double-headed, fire-fighting tool called the Pulaski. One side has an axe blade and the other a mattock (a sharp, hoe-like blade), and it is still the premier hand tool for cutting fire line and chopping logs.

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