Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 2, 2021

Fire! Grab Your Pulaski.

As you must know, we’ve been sweltering in the midst of a blazing summer here in the American southwest.

In recent months, fire has burned more than two million acres of forest land, and driven hundreds of people from their homes.

“Fire” is an interesting word.

Compact, only four letters, “fire” has — for most of the English-speaking world — two syllables.

It’s an old word, recorded in the earliest versions of English, when it was “fyr,” and may have been pronounced as a single syllable, still extant in some parts of England and currently in the southern United States as “fahr.”

A word to reckon with. Wherever you are, don’t cry “Fire!” and not expect a response.

As I type, wildfires are consuming hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, grassland and chaparral across the American west and southwest. That is not hyberbole. If anything, it’s an understatement.

Some of the world’s largest and oldest trees — Sequoias — are at the absolute edge of catastrophe.

In this new world of an overheated planet, fires are also burning in Sardinia, Turkey, Siberia and … too many places to count.

Ignited by lightning, sparking power lines, human carelessness, they’re burning. Some of this season’s fires — and “fire season” has become a nearly year-round event — are, as in most years, in some of the most rugged, remote terrain imaginable.

Tens of thousands of firefighters are at work in heat, low humidity, sometimes nearly surrounded by flame, smoke and blowing embers. That’s not an exaggeration. A single fire in northern California currently has more than 6,300 members of fire teams at work. They work in demanding conditions, with different strategies and tactics than the emergency crews who staff your local fire station. Their primary task is not the standard image of extinguishing structure fires — although it sometimes comes to that.

Instead, they work in steep, rugged back country, clearing fire-breaks, intending to stop or at least slow the advance of what can only be called walls of flame, some of them so intense that they create columns of heat that generate weather of tornadic power.

Both sorts of firefighting require skill and training, not to mention daunting physical labor.

Battling wildfires, crews carry the tools they use into those forbidding environments.

I grin in a self-effacing way when I say that I’ve hiked on trails across the west and southwest in some of that country. Hiking a trail and looking at the untracked wilderness to either side of me, I can only imagine the labor it requires to cut across canyons and climb slopes across unforgiving terrain.

Those crews don’t carry the hoses and ladders of urban firefighting, but shovels, axes, chainsaws and a tool specifically developed for back country fire-fighting: the Pulaski.

Often called — not quite correctly — a pickaxe, the Pulaski combines two functions critical for wild land firefighting. The horizontal blade — technically an “adze” or “mattock” — is a digging tool, while the vertical blade is an axe for chopping.

Versions of this tool have existed for several hundred years. Adopted by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) early in the last century, the tool’s current form is credited to Ed Pulaski, an assistant ranger with the USFS, who served for nearly twenty years, much of his time after having his lungs and eyes burned during a disastrous wildfire in Idaho in 1910.

Digging fire lines is an essential, back-breaking component of wild land firefighting, hence the mattock. Only in desperation does one use the axe to actually fell a tree. More commonly, that edge is used to chop out burning embers from standing or fallen trees. Chopping down a standing tree by hand is the most severe labor imaginable, but fire crews are sometimes driven to do it, if there’s no chain saw within hailing distance.

Sharpen your edges. Fire is coming to a warming planet. As I write, crews are working to keep the KP Complex fire from burning into the heart of California’s Sequoia National Park. As a last resort, “General Sherman,” the world’s largest tree, and others, have been wrapped in protective foil.

Start no fire. Smokey said it best.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021

Note: There’s an enormous amount that’s been written about fire and the American west. I’m not an authority. Still, if you start somewhere, I encourage you to read “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. You may know him as the author of “A River Runs Through It.” I consider it one of the great books of the 20th century. There, if ever, you’re given a glimpse into the dire conditions of fighting fires on inhospitable terrain.


  1. Native English fire is a doublet of Greek-derived pyre.


    • As always, I thank you. I have some work to do here, chasing this one down. Consonant shift from p to f? Stranger things have happened.


      • Yes, the Indo-European initial p that Greek and Latin preserved became f in Germanic. Compare pater~father, pod-~foot.


      • Thank you for explaining. I’m always glad to hear from you when you’re not shooting lovely photos of plants and flowers.


  2. Once again, hackles have been raised around the globe. Until your post, I had never given any thought to whether the word fire was one or two syllables. The sound of the word fire is clearly different from the word fir. But what if you say “fye-ur” or “fyr?” My quick check of Google sites indicates fire could be either one or two syllables. But dividing the word as “” into two syllables doesn’t look right, does it? For so short a word, it seems to get a rather large amount of attention.

    Liked by 1 person

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