In the Seattle Times “Today in History” section on August 20, 2010, I read: “A series of forest fires swept through parts of Idaho, Montana and Washington, killing at least 85 people and burning some 3 million acres in what became known as the ‘Big Blowup.'” There’s more to the story than that brief notice.
In July of 2010, my daughter, my husband and I drove through Wallace, Idaho, and learned about the Big Blowup. The town and the U.S. Forest Service were preparing a memorial to the fire which occurred on August 20, 1910, to be dedicated on the one hundredth anniversary, August 20, 2010. We learned that the 1910 summer had been very dry, and forest fires raged all over the west. On August 20, when it became apparent that the fire moving toward them could not be stopped, a forest ranger, Edward Pulaski, saved the lives of 45 men by racing them down the West Fort of Placer Creek and hustling them into a tunnel that he knew, the Nicholson mineshaft. In the tunnel he found blankets and water, and used wet blankets over the adit (the opening of the mineshaft, it’s a word you find in crossword puzzles all the time) to keep flames and smoke out. He made the men lie down on the floor of the tunnel where there might be air. Pulaski’s eyes were so badly damaged that he was unable to work in the field, but he continued a long career in the forest service, among other things inventing a tool that is familiar to anyone who has ever done any trail work.
We hiked the Pulaski Tunnel Trail outside of Wallace on that very hot July day. I recommend this short hike to anyone planning a break on a cross-country drive. It’s only four miles round trip, following that West Fork, with an elevation gain of only 800 feet. Along the way there are interpretive signs telling the story of Ed Pulaski and the Big Blowup, and at the end there is an overlook that looks down at the entrance to the tunnel, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Each signboard is embellished by two of the Pulaski tools, a long handle with two heads, one an ax, the other a hoe. The forest service brochure for the trail says the Pulaski is the basic implement of fire control, but I used one, for a very short time, when I was a volunteer clearing a trail with Washington Trails.
Much of the information in this post has come from the U.S. Forest Service brochure, Pulaski Tunnel Trail, from the Coeur d’Alene Ranger District.