Jeff Halstead crawled into the Nicholsen adit silent, sobered and awestruck.
Here was the place 100 years ago today that Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski led 45 terrorized firefighters as the firestorm of the Big Blowup was within seconds of roasting them.
Halstead, a high school English teacher from Spokane, knows the whole story. He was one of the hundreds of people from across the country who had made the pilgrimage to Wallace to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the fire that burned 3 million acres in two days and killed 78 firefighters.
Pulaski had walked up the narrow valley of Placer Creek to meet the firefighters who had been rounded up in Spokane and Missoula to fight the blazes. They were dazed and scared, Stephen Pyne, the author of the 2001 classic, “Year of the Fires,” called them a mob.
As Halstead’s eyes got used to the darkness of that mining tunnel he could see that it turned to the left. It narrowed past where a barrier is erected to keep people out.
“Forty-five men, that’s a long line,” Halstead said.
Snails sat attached to the wet rocks and an ouzel flew to the opening from the shallow running waters of Placer Creek at the entrance.
“When you hear the stories of men strangling each other and crying for their mothers you can now understand,” Halstead said. “I’d be crying too.”
Pulaski was the leader, this mob knew, as he led them ahead of the fire down the canyon. Fire burns slower going down than up, so they were able to keep ahead of it at first. But eventually the smoke turned the day into night and the roar that sounded like dozens of locomotives enveloped them from all sides.
They squeezed into the tunnel, some using horse blankets to put out fires on the timbers until their hands were scorched. Several panicked and wanted to leave. Pulaski pulled his gun and made them lie down to get the minuscule oxygen left on the floor.
“This is sobering,” Halstead said. “It gives you a strange feeling. It’s kind of like the room across from the Ford’s Theater where Lincoln died,” he said.
The two-mile trail is steep going up. It has great information on all of the fires those faithful two days and especially about Pulaski’s ordeal.
All of the men in the tunnel had passed out due to smoke inhalation and lack of oxygen. One climbed through the bodies, including Pulaski’s to head down the trail to Wallace.
He reported the incident at 3 a.m. and said he was the only survivor. A relief party was organized and headed up the now burned out canyon up the trail to the tunnel. In the meantime some of the other firefighters awoke and crawled out.
One said Pulaski was dead. “Like Hell he is,” the ranger said from his place on the floor of the mine.
Only six died and the survivors, blind, burned and even their shoes burned off, struggled down the trail hikers now traverse for cardio workouts.
The story wasn’t especially powerful at the time,” Pyne told a gathering at the Elks Club in Wallace Thursday. It grew as the Forest Service grew around its main conservation mission, firefighting, which was forged out of the wreckage of the 1910 fires.
Pulaski’s story became the creation myth on which the agency built it own story. As a young man Halstead had used a Pulaski, the combination axe and hoe that the ranger later designed.
It remains the tool of choice for firefighters, a tangible symbol of the heroic and creative ideal the agency long held of itself and its people.
Ironically Pulaski got short shrift from the agency that turned him into its hero. He got little financial help to pay for his injuries and he died soon after retirement.
What would Pulaski think about today’s fire policies? One of the people at Pyne’s talk asked the historian.
Pulaski was no philosopher, Pyne said. He was a lot like many of the people in the Wallace area still today, he thought with his hands.
The four 1910 fire veterans who headed the Forest Service until 1939 made sure that ull suppression was the only acceptable policy of the Forest Service. That slowly changed until the 1970s when the agency began a more nuanced policy that has evolved today toward using fire both to reduce fuels and restore ecological health of the forest.
If someone today like Pulaski was going to try to influence firefighting policy, he probably would be creating a tool, Pyne said.
“Probably like Ed’s it’s going to be a hybrid,” Pyne said.