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The History of the Pulaski Fire Tool: Forged in Fire, Honored in History

In the challenging and demanding world of wildland firefighting, every moment and tool used can make a critical difference. One tool that has come to symbolize resilience and ingenuity is the Pulaski fire tool. The Pulaski has remained relatively the same for over a century, reliable in its design and utility.

With its dual-purpose construction, blending an axe and a mattock, the Pulaski fire tool has proven to be an indispensable asset for firefighters facing wildfires in the most challenging terrains. Its ability to chop, dig, and scrape with equal proficiency has rendered it a trusted companion in the face of roaring fires. 

But if it weren't for one man's persistent nature to improve upon a planting tool to become a tool for wildland firefighting, the Pulaski fire tool would not be here today.

Edward "Big Ed" Pulaski

The origin of the Pulaski tool begins with Ed Pulaski, a legendary figure in the history of wildland firefighting. In the early 20th century, at 42 years old, Ed began working as a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in the rugged terrain of the Pacific Northwest at the Coeur d'Alene National Forest. He had many roles during his 22-year career, including building cabins and trails, installing telephone lines, and controlling fires.

In 1910, during the largest wildfire in history, known as The Big Blowup, 3 million acres burned in just 2 days. Ed and his crew of 45 men were nearly engulfed by the flames in the forests just outside Wallace, ID. However, Ed's familiarity with the land helped lead his crew to an abandoned mine, shielding them from the fires until the following morning. 

Thanks to his efforts, Pulaski saved 39 of his crew members. Unfortunately, five didn't make it through the night, and one was hit by a falling tree on their way to the mine.

Ed sustained several injuries due to the fire; he was hit by flames the night of the fire. As a result of his injuries, Ed was in the hospital for a month. He had burns on most of his body, was blind in one eye, and couldn't see very well out of the other eye.

In addition to fighting for payment for his crew members' medical bills, Ed pushed the Forest Service to create an official monument for those who didn't survive. The monument, located at the Nine Mile Cemetery, was established twelve years after the fire.

Ed Pulaski | Photo Source:
Photo Source: Forest History Society

"Mr. Pulaski is a man of most excellent judgment; conservative, thoroughly acquainted with the region, having prospected through the region for over twenty-five years. He is considered by the old-timers as one of the best and safest men to be placed in charge of a crew of men in the hills." – William Weigle, Forest Supervisor.

Origins of the Pulaski Tool

The Pulaski tool has a long history, with variations from other companies existing before 1910. However, it was the version created by Ranger Ed Pulaski that gained recognition in the fire industry. 

Ed was approached by his supervisor, William G. Weigle, to improve his mattock and create a new tool that could combine a shovel, axe, and mattock for forestry and planting purposes since he had a blacksmithing shop at his home. The first version of the Pulaski was not ideal as a planting tool, but Ed continued to refine it, removing the shovel and improving the axe and mattock blades. This resulted in a tool that revolutionized firefighting techniques.

Ed's innovation led to a unique tool that combined the features of an axe and a mattock into a single, compact implement. One side featured a wide, flat blade for chopping and cutting through vegetation, while the other side had a sharp, mattock-like edge for digging and scraping.

This dual-purpose design allowed firefighters to clear brush, chop trees, and dig fire lines with speed and efficiency, making the Pulaski an indispensable tool in firefighting. The first version of the Pulaski was created in 1911, followed by an updated version in 1913. By 1920, Ed successfully convinced the Forest Service to issue Pulaskis to fire crews, and now it is a commonly used tool in both the Forest Service and private companies.

The Original Pulaski Tool | Photo Source: Linda Hall Library

"Every time a firefighter reaches for a pulaski, he or she figuratively retells "the story of Big Ed and the Big Blowup, the saga of the Great Fires and the year that tried to contain them." – Stephen J. Pyne, Fire Historian 2001

The Pulaski Tunnel Trail

Ed Pulaski's actions during The Big Blowup made him a hero in the eyes of the public, even though he didn't see himself that way. In October 2002, the Pulaski Project, a group of concerned citizens, received grants to restore the trail overtaken by erosion and overgrowth to educate and commemorate the wildland firefighters and victims in 1910. 

The following year, the two-mile trail officially opened. It starts just half a mile south of Wallace and has twelve signs along the path sharing the story of The Big Blowup and Ed Pulaski's heroic actions. The trail also takes you to the same abandoned mine where Ed took his crew.

In 2010, the mine portal was recreated to resemble how the mine would have looked just after the fire, using historical photos for reference. If you can't make it to Idaho, you can take a virtual hike!

Tunnel entrance to the abandon mine | Photo Source: Forest History Society

"We counted our number. Five were missing. Some of the men went back and tried to awaken them, but they were dead. As the air outside became clearer, we gained strength, and finally were able to stagger to our feet and start toward Wallace. We had to make our way over burning logs and through smoking debris. When walking failed us, we crawled on hands and knees." - Ed Pulaski 1923

Since its introduction, the Pulaski fire tool has become synonymous with wildland firefighting, earning a place of honor among firefighters worldwide. The Pulaski has helped firefighters tame some of the most ferocious wildfires in history. Its rugged durability, ergonomic design, and unmatched versatility have made it a trusted companion to generations of firefighters.

As we continue to face the challenges of wildfires in the future, let's remember the legacy of Ed Pulaski and the countless firefighters who have used this essential tool in the battle against nature's fury.

About True North Gear

True North has invested over 30 years into researching, designing, and manufacturing innovative gear and clothing for first responders and industrial safety workers. We provide the pinnacle in performance through a design philosophy that embraces durability, comfort, and protection as inclusive elements. Designing and delivering dependable products is essential to our overarching mission to support and protect customers operating in life-risking environments every day. As part of these efforts, we focus on actions that improve and support the great outdoors. Through our partnership with 1% for the Planet, and as a Climate Neutral certified organization, we’re putting our resources and attention on helping the environment that our customers live and work in because a safer landscape means fewer lives on the line, along with healthier land, environment, and air.