Hiking the Big Burn in Wallace, ID

Photo Courtesy of the US Forest Service

“The wind was so strong that it almost lifted men out of their saddles and the canyons seemed to act like chimneys through which the wind and fires swept with the roar of a thousand freight trains.” The words of Edward C. Pulaski at the head of Pulaski Tunnel Trail provide a somber introduction to the four-mile round-trip hike commemorating one Wallace, Idaho, chapter of the 1910 Northwest forest fire known as “the time when the mountains roared.”

Five million acres of national forest, unknown swaths of private, state and reservation land, entire communities and 85 lives were lost that summer in fast-spreading flames caused by high temperatures and abnormally low precipitation. Most of the destruction occurred on August 21 and 22 when gale-force winds whipped 1,736 fires into an inferno, forcing Forest Ranger Ed Pulaski and his Wallace-based firefighting crew of 45 men to scramble into an abandoned mine shaft for cover. There, Pulaski managed to save 39 of them by guarding the tunnel’s entrance at gunpoint to prevent escape.

The Pulaski Tunnel Trail has been designated on the National Register of Historic Places. A movie inspired by the best-selling book The Big Burn came out in 2015. This pivotal Northwest fire changed the Forest Service’s fire-fighting policies and began scientific research into the role of fires in ecosystems. Still today, an innovative hand tool called the Pulaski, designed by Ed Pulaski combining an axe and adze on one head, is required gear in wildfire suppression.

To appreciate the Pulaski Tunnel Trail, begin at the informative Wallace District Mining Museum on the town’s main street. Their 1910 Fire Exhibit provides historic context for the multi-state fire, the role of Pulaski and the town of Wallace and archaeological efforts to document the site. You can pick up a guide to additional Big Burn commemorative sites in Idaho and Montana.

Five minutes out of town the trailhead begins at a bridge mounted with two Pulaski tools. The moderate uphill trail follows the cascading West Fork of Placer Creek through stands of regrown fir and spruce over bridges and boardwalks to an overlook across the creek from the mine shaft where Pulaski stood guard. En route are 12 interpretive signs, and, just off the trail, burned logs and remnants of the old mining operation serve as reminders of an inferno whose legacy altered wildfire policy.

Additional information can be found at visitnorthidaho.com/activity/pulaski-tunnel-trail.