Ed Pulaski may be best known for the firefighting tool he invented, a cross between an ax and a hoe that bears his name and . still is used in firefighting today. But Pulaski’s heroics during the 1910 wildfIres that devastated the forests of North Idaho, Eastern Washington and Montana tell an even more compelling story, one – that Silver Valley residents hope will draw tourists and others to a historic site, trail and interpretive center. Long before he invented the handy tool that kept forest fire-fighters from having to carry both an ax and a hoe, Pulaski was a Forest Service ranger in Wallace in August 1910 when the woods exploded into a fIrestorm, trapping 1,800 firefighters between Wallace and Avery. Drawing on his knowledge of the area, Pulaski led his 45-man crew to safety in an abandoned mine, now known as the Pulaski Tunnel. There, they lay face down through a suffocating night of smoke and heat. Their leader kept some from panicking and heading outside to certain death with the end of his pistol. He beat, out flaming timbers at the mine’s entrance with horse blankets and mine water he gathered in his hat.
Though the whole group lost consciousness during that night, including Pulaski, nearly all survived, and crawled back through the smoking, charred woods to Wallace in the morning. “The fire was so hot that it killed the fish in the creek,” said Jim See, a guidance counselor and teacher at Mullan High School. “When the firefighters came out, they could not sit on the rocks because they were so hot beside the creek.” See is an avid hiker and amateur historian who noticed that the historic tunnel site and the trail leading to it have been deteriorating, and feared they could soon be lost forever. Now, a Silver Valley group is working to restore the historic site and trail, build a new trailhead and historic markers and eventually create a national wildfire education center and museum at the trailhead site. “It’s already on the National Register of Historie Places,” See said. “And so is the escape route.” The project is now known as the Pulaski Project, and work is scheduled to start this summer on restoring, realigning and marking the trail and the tunnel entrance. At the behest of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, Congress has appropriated nearly $300,000 for the Forest Service to take on the project. Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, this month told the House State Affairs Committee about the project and the story. Eventually, a $15 million interpretive center and museum is envisioned to serve as a national center for wildlife education. A “fire room” would give visitors the experience of the sights, sounds and smells of a raging wildfire, she said.
The House committee agreed to introduce a resolution Shepherd proposed to “express support and encouragement for the efforts of the Pulaski project, and acknowledge the dedication of the wildfire fighters, past, present and future.” Former Rep. Don Pischner, R-Coeur d’Alene, has been working with the project. “My dad knew Ed ulaski,” Pischner said. “In my generation, Ed Pulaski was this big hero.” When the backers had access problems to part of the trail, Pischner discovered that the land is now owned by his employer, Stimson Lumber. Soon, there was a letter of agreement for access, including easements and possibly a land sale. Idaho Historical Society Director Steve Guerber said he thinks the Pulaski Project is “a great idea,” that could both preserve and make more accessible “the site where a significant historic event took place.” The trailhead is about half a mile south of Wallace. From there, the trail runs about two miles to the tunnel. See said, “We’re going on a hike with the engineers in April, once the snow allows that to happen, so we can identify exactly where the trail is.” The tunnel itself is too dangerous for public access, he said, but possibilities include an overlook or structure where visitors would be able to peer into the old mine.