BOONVILLE, Calif. – Ask any Task Force Axe Soldier about two “recruits” named Edward Pulaski and Malcolm McLeod. They were introduced to the California National Guard as Operation Lightning Strike commenced late June, yet have been inseparable to the Guard’s firefighting mission.
Guardsmen know them simply by their last names. Pulaski, the hard-working, two-headed tough guy, has an attitude. McLeod is ugly. He only has six teeth as sharp as fangs.
Although rookies to the Guard – and considering California Soldiers haven’t ground-fought fires since 1977 – Pulaski and McLeod are no strangers to blaze battles. Pulaski’s almost a hundred years old. Wildland firefighting is his forte’. McLeod isn’t too far behind in age, but even so, he’s still ugly.
“All I know is they’ve been around firefighting much longer than I have,” said Capt. Walt Wallace, a CAL FIRE 30-year veteran (and recent retiree) who was called back for this mission and assigned to Task Force Axe. “But once the Guardsmen got used to them, they were easy to handle. But those two (Pulaski and McCloud), sometimes they’re tougher and more dependable than chainsaws.”
All treks to Sugarloaf Mountain, Table Mountain and Navarro/Indian regions in charred Northern California – Task Force Axe’s area of operation -- have been up and down with Pulaski and McLeod in hand. Guardsmen must mop up areas previously consumed by fires. They can’t do that without Pulaski, McLeod and sometimes, Sgt. Joe Shovel. But Shovel isn’t as unique as the other two. He’s boring. Although useful, Shovel isn’t as glamorous as the pair, so he remains unpublicized.
Lewis said the tools are just as important to the Guardsmen as military weapons.
“I’d rather take Pulaski with me and give that Shovel to someone else,” barked a Team Axe 10 Soldier, gripping Pulaski’s hand. “You can get more work out of it. That Shovel can’t cut through trees, sometimes.”
Pulaski and McLeod are special weapons. To ALL firefighters, they’re tools specifically designed for wildland fires. The Pulaski combines an axe and mattock in one head. It can be used to both dig soil and chop wood. The McLeod is a large hoe-like blade on one side and tined blade on the other. It resembles a rake and razor.
With these tools, Guardsmen unearth terrain looking for burning root. They’ll dig “sometimes up to five feet” to douse fire that have been burning for more than two weeks, says Sgt 1st Class Jacques Lewis, Axe 10 team leader. “A lot of what we’ve learned so far has been pretty interesting. We’ve learned to look for different types of hazards, how to properly find these hot spots to keep them from flaring up again in a few months.”
“When the day’s done, everyone sharpens what tool they’ve been assigned. You take care of your tool, it takes care of you,” Lewis explained.
Edward C. Pulaski, a US Forest Service ranger in the early 1900s, is credited to have invented the most significant firefighters tool. According to Wikipedia, an internet dictionary, Pulaski fought in the 1910 Idaho wildfires and “tired of carrying two separate implements to fight a forest fire, one to chop and one to hoe, he combined an axe and a grub hoe. Now he could chop with one side, turn it, and hoe the ground with the other.”
Malcolm McLeod, another USFS ranger, originated his tool for “raking fire lines with the teeth and for cutting branches and sod with the sharpened hoe edge. The McLeod is useful for removing slough and berm from a trail and tamping or compacting tread.”
“Those days of just rakes, hoes and shovels to fight fires are long gone, been gone for quite some time,” added CAL FIRE’s Luke Sandoval, incident commander at Boonville, base camp for firefighters in the region. “Now we have the National Guard interacting with other firefighting agencies and utilizing equipment specifically designed to fight fires.”
To a Soldier on firefighting duty, Pulaski and McLeod are like an M-16 rifle or squad automatic weapon during wartime: They’re your best friends. You never go without them.
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