LAKEPORT, Calif. - Each morning during this fire season, Soldiers from the California National Guard’s Task Force Charlie shake hands with Dr. Pulaski and Dr. McLeod before heading into the Northern California hills to fight wildfires.
Pulaski, the surgeon, is the favorite of the California Guard members who are mopping up the remains of the Rocky Fire, Humboldt Lightning Fire and Jerusalem Fire. Pulaski gets called often to operate on the toughest limbs in the area.
McLeod, a dentist, is as ugly as can be. He’s got three-inch teeth that are gapped far apart; you don’t know whether to smile back or kick a field goal. Although ugly, McLeod is best for root canals.
“He’s not cool at all,” said Sean Surahara, military liaison for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). “He’s ugly, but he’s important, so we keep him around.”
Pulaski and McCleod are the names of two vital tools that California National Guard hand crews have been carrying into the hills. Along with Dr. Axe and Sir Shovel, this foursome can bring dead terrain back to life. And they certainly are effective — right behind water — in battling Northern California blazes.
Guard assets from several states have been called up to assist state officials in fighting the wildfires that have burned at least 750,000 acres. Guard members in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana have been providing aviation support, working as hand crews responsible for creating firebreaks and providing communications and other logistical support requirements.
Latest figures from the National Guard Bureau show about 30 troops on duty in Oregon, about 410 working in Washington state and about 840 Guard members on fire duty in California.
Pulaski is a two-headed hand tool, a combination of axe and pick. Like a gardener or farmer’s mattock, it can be used for chopping and digging. When California Guardsmen mop up a fire, they constantly do both to extinguish a hot spot. They cut tree branches, logs, roots — anything that’s still burning or capable of burning in the future — using CAL FIRE’s most popular tool.
“Anyone who’s out fighting fires, regardless of whether they’re mopping up or making a fire line, will likely have a Pulaski,” Surahara said. “When we watched the Soldiers in training [at Camp Roberts], we noticed the ones who are good at Pulaskis or good with other tools. If you’re good with a tool, that’s the one you’ll end up with on the fire line.”
The McLeod is multisided and serves as a rake and cutting knife. The rake end can move debris and flatten ground, while the cutting edges serve as a hoe. It’s an ugly-looking piece of equipment but it gets the job done.
“Both tools are a firefighter’s best friends,” Surahara said. “For wildland fires, these are the standard tools.”
Surahara demonstrated the tools’ other purposes, such as deeply implanting them to use as leverage when climbing steep terrain. The Pulaski and McLeod are ground-pounding, dirt-excavating hand equipment, but they are invaluable to clearing debris in tough areas.
“These tools are on every piece of firefighting equipment out here,” added Surahara. “It’ll be impossible to fight a fire without them.”
“There’s nothing else that they can be replaced with,” said CAL FIRE’s Rodney Jared, who guides California Guardsmen on mop up missions.
California Soldiers are responsible for their specific tools. The day doesn’t end until they’re off the fire line sharpening their Pulaskis and McLeods. Each Soldier is issued a file for that purpose.
“It’s like a weapon given to a Soldier. You take care of it, it takes care of you,” said Surahara. “If you want your weapon to be effective, you sharpen it up.”
Pulaski’s and McLeod’s origins date to the early 1900s. Malcolm McLeod, a U.S. Forest Service Ranger, created his strange looking but effective hand tool. Ed Pulaski, also a Forest Service Ranger, invented and patented the Pulaski.