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Ancient Ute Mountain sites enveloped by fires

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - A second major fire, the Pony Mesa blaze, swept across Mesa Verde early this month and nibbled away at some of the nation's most remote and well-preserved ruins on Ute Mountain tribal lands.

The Pony fire erupted almost as soon weary firefighters won the battle against the Bircher fire which consumed 23,000 acres before it succumbed. And, by Aug. 9, it was consuming Ute Mountain land endangering a vast array of ancient dwellings.

Most Bircher damage was confined to Mesa Verde National Park, almost one half of the park's total 56,000 acres. Firefighters and park personnel, diligently working side by side with archaeologists, managed to protect most ruins that make Mesa Verde a national treasure known world wide.

At a containment level of 40 percent, firefighters were hopeful the Mesa Verde fires would soon be extinguished, ending a battle that has scorched more than 28,000 acres of land - most of it within the park.

The blaze, at Pony Mesa adjacent to Mesa Verde's southern perimeter, ignited Aug. 5, blasting its way through 5,000 acres before firefighters, who left following the Bircher fire, were recalled.

Brian Peterson, information officer for Pony, said lightning strikes and extremely dry conditions were blamed for both fires, and suspected in two more - the Cabezone Fire, near the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area which burned 550 acres, and the Hamilton fire, also within a 50-mile radius of the park.

Firefighting teams, mostly Native American firefighters from throughout the United States, including Alaska, battled to stay one step ahead of the wall of flame heading into the park over the weekend. They battled infernos in virtually inaccessible site locations and surrounding rugged terrain.

The Bircher fire, leveling everything in its wake, failed to damage structures with the exception of one roof on a 1960s building. During the short park life of the Pony Mesa fire, a visitor's pavilion burned to the ground, along with restrooms, tables, a parking area for shuttle buses, some visitor information centers and kiosks.

"It stopped right there at Wetherill Mesa," Pony's chief information officer Dave Steinke said. "It went over the Long house, the Long house is fine," he said of the park's second largest ruin.

Structures in imminent danger were hosed to saturation and some were wrapped in fire resistant materials to prevent the flames from gaining a foothold.

By Aug. 9, 90 percent of Pony appeared to be burning Ute Mountain land, said tribal Vice Chairman Selwyn Whiteskunk.

The reservation has a vast array of ancient dwellings and once included Mesa Verde ruins. Discovered by ranchers during the 1800s, the ruins sparked reallocation of tribal lands to build the national park. Whiteskunk said the tribe was forced to relinquish its acreage in 1902.

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Considerably less well-known than those at Mesa Verde, Ute Mountain sites include 20 to30 within the Pony Mesa fire. Many more were directly adjacent to the flanks of the fire.

"The sites that remain date back to 400 A.D. and contain many of the original artifacts, since the sites aren't visible and typically aren't accessed by visitors to the reservation, Whiteskunk said. "There are sites that you visit with a guide, hiking or on horseback.

"We knew this (fire) was bound to happen," he said, referring to dry conditions that contributed to rampant wildfires this year. "It wasn't a matter of 'if' it would occur, it was a matter of when."

He estimated the reservation lost 3,200 acres in the Bircher fire, and the Pony Mesa fire damaged even more. "We think, at this point, that it's probably in the 4,200 acre range. And we won't know where we are with the losses of the ruins until we are able to get in there and look.

Many are not easily accessible. At Inaccessible House, "you have to rappel down a rope into it to get to it.

"There are some really elaborate sites that are viewed by the public ... when people come and see these they just fall in love with the sites. They are a lot different from the Mesa Verde sites. Those are pretty sterile. They took everything out, like the pottery and things." he said.

"The tribal park, those sites, those objects are still left in their original state. That's our concern," he said. "We are having a much harder time getting the additional funding from the government for the rehabilitation of our lands.

"In about 1886, they came in and brought foreign archaeologists in, and they took many of the artifacts out, transporting them back to Sweden. Prior to that ... no one was aware that those sites existed."

Then, he said, "The government took it over and there was no compensation."

Peterson said so far, none of the Mesa Verde archaeological sites were damaged.

Whiteskunk wished that were true of the Ute Mountain reservation ruins.

"All we can do now is wait," he said, "until conditions allow us to go in and evaluate what was lost."