Saving history part of fire fight

Archaeologists work with fire crews to protect ancient sites

Archaeologists worked alongside firefighters in the Mancos area this week to ensure the past, as well as the present, is salvaged from the devastation of the Weber Fire.

As crews dug containment lines deep into the ground around the 9,279-acre blaze, which was sparked at around 4:15 p.m. Friday, June 22, archaeologists worked side-by-side with firefighters. Checking terrain for cultural resources that could be damaged in the fight against the fire, archaeologists, by their very nature, worked with meticulous precision.

“Putting archaeologists on fires is almost commonplace these days,” said Beth Hermanson, public information officer for Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team C. “Every fire we go on it is just standard to have archaeologists attached with us because there are so many cultural sites, especially in the west.”

Sometimes, the work of protecting sensitive cultural sites is straightforward, as in the case of the Chapin #5 Fire, which burned 5,000 acres at Mesa Verde National Park in 1996, and the Bircher and Pony fires, which charred over 21,000 acres within the park in 2000. Park officials and fire management teams knew protecting the park’s famous cliff dwelling and other excavated sites was a priority, but the fire was also burning in locations that had not been surveyed for archaeological sites.

As a result, archaeologists were asked to work with firefighting teams to ensure that fighting the blaze did not damage unknown sites. In places dense with cultural history, such as Southwest Colorado, fire has a way of revealing what time has hidden. Fire officials managing large wildfires work hard to ensure that what is uncovered is also protected.

“Archaeologists, especially local archaeologists, are basically advisors to us,” Hermanson said. “They know where those cultural sites are and they give us guidance on whether we can put a dozer in a specific place or if that line needs a light touch. They let us know where these cultural sites are so we don’t damage them.”

Mesa Verde benefitted from the cooperation of archaeologists and firefighters as 372 new ancient sites were discovered after the Chapin #5 Fire and nearly 1,000 new sites were found after the fires of 2000.

Area archaeologists estimate there could be just as many pieces of cultural history in Weber Canyon as at Mesa Verde.

“I think you see important sites all around the area of the Weber Fire and I think there is probably the whole suite of history in Weber Canyons, from Ancestral Puebloan to Basketmaker III and Pueblo III,” said Shanna Diederichs, an archaeologist with Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, who has worked as an archaeologist on seven wildfires. “I think you also have evidence there of archaic and early occupation. And you can’t forget early homesteading history and mining history. The entire history of this area was present in that canyon.”

Typically, archaeologists are not working to protect cultural sites and artifacts from the fire itself, but from the firefighting efforts. Heavy equipment can damage sites before fire officials even know they are there.

“Archaeologists go in to clear the area and survey in front of where ground disturbance occurs,” said Connie Clementson, Bureau of Land Management agency administrator for the Weber Fire. “This is a culturally rich area and we want to make sure we are doing what is right with the survey and protection and mitigation of the resources.”

Diederichs said archaeologists will walk the perimeter of the fire with ground crews, identifying sites, recommending alternate routes and noting sites that could use protection from bucket or slurry drops.

The result, she said, is the protection of places that tell the story of the region.

“These are resources that we want to protect if we can,” Diederichs said. “They are our history and we need to do everything we can to preserve our history.”

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com.