MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - Teams of archaeologists have been working alongside firefighters battling flames, seeking to identify and protect the nation's largest collection of American Indian ruins.
Rugged terrain of the 56,000-acre park proved a major obstacle to the 770 firefighters who felt they finally had turned a corner after nearly a week and expected to soon gain control of the blaze. Aerial attacks with water and flame retardants pushed firefighting costs to $1.2 million a day.
National Guard troops were called in July 25 to enhance efforts of the combined task force of BIA, Park Service, Ute Mountain Tribe firefighters and various local and county agencies and volunteers from throughout the region.
Wildland Fire Management Specialist David Lentz said changing weather conditions exacerbated an already volatile situation, making coordinated efforts to gain control of the fires difficult.
By the evening of July 26, the 'Bircher fire' had consumed just under 23,000 acres and continued to blaze a steady course through Mesa Verde, in spite of rains in the vicinity. Mancos, where the blaze originated, received rainfall that helped quell small spirals of smoke visible against the landscape. Firefighters closer to Mesa Verde saw zero precipitation.
Several new sites containing ruins have been located through the efforts of people on the ground, walking the perimeters of the firelines and digging trenches to slow the spread of the blaze.
Will Morris, Park Service spokesman and a Montezuma County resident, had no specific numbers from the fire in progress. He said in 1996, some 300 sites known to have existed in the area burned and 282 additional sites were located as a result of the movement of fire personnel in the area at that time.
"That gives you an indication of the very rich sites in that area and not all the areas that are burning now have anywhere near that concentration," he said. "It's also an indication of how dense the vegetation was in that area. The early archaeologists would literally walk through acreage identifying sites, but a lot of them were actually covered and some (areas) were so thick (with foliage) you could not look into alcoves on canyon walls."
A site can be anything that contains evidence of an early person's presence. Morris said that means anything from a place where a person made a tool, otherwise known as a 'lithic pile,' to standing architecture which might be a wall, a kiva, or a cliff dwelling.
"In the case of the 1996 fire, there was a great kiva found that hadn't been known before, a tower complex, and even a small cliff site that had not been (located) prior to the fire," Morris said.
"We're not expecting to find another cliff palace or balcony house, but it is possible that as that area is cleared there may be enough patterns that we can learn something new," he said. "In 1996 the fire burned through a lot of drainages and there were a whole lot more check dams found than we knew about and that indicated that the early people were much better water managers than we had ever considered."
This year, crews worked side by side with archaeologists to protect the park's ruins - and some have attributed the protection of existing sites to careful planning on the part of tactical procedure decision makers designed to minimize destruction of the sites within the park.
Late July 26, in spite of the large burn areas within the park boundaries this year, no sites had actually been destroyed and only one park structure was damaged - a building erected in the 1960s by park personnel.
"There is always the possibility that if a fire burned hot enough and fast enough into an archaeological site, it could damage it," Morris said. "Sandstone explodes - there's mortar that could burn and pop out from between the stones. A lot of the structures contain wood beams that created the ceilings and floors for these early structures."
Morris said park personnel have been particularly concerned about wildfires and had taken steps to minimize the potential for damage or destruction of the Mesa Verde structures since 1992, and utilizing an active program of 'fuel reduction' since the 1996 "Chapin 5" fire that entailed cutting trees around structures and visitors centers and the lodge.
"On the Morefield Campground site we had 80 firefighters, four crews and six fire engines prepositioned there so they were ready with putting down water and ready to defend those structures," he concluded. "We were creating a fireline in advance."
These efforts are being replicated on all flanks of the fire at this point as steps are being taken to remove 'fuel' debris before the fire arrives.
Morris said the significance of the fire in the lives of the Montezuma County residents was not lost on those in charge, that they were very aware of the impact on businesses and residents.
"People's homes have been in jeopardy. They aren't any longer. Over the weekend, the smoke column rising up into the air - the rain of ash on all the local communities - that's scary stuff," he said.
During one phase of the fire, flames were moving fast enough to overtake wildlife as they attempted to flee.
"This fire is burning in the vicinity of the habitat of deer, mountain lions, elk, black bear, raccoons, wild turkeys, peregrin falcon - so this is an area of concern and clearly some animals probably died," Morris said.
"(The fires) have changed the habitat now and next season, clearly within two years, those areas will green up again and some will return to the park. It might change the diversity of the wildlife, the complexion. But there's still an awful lot of the park that will support wildlife habitat."
In the meantime, it's quite possible that some 'unusual' sightings may occur as the displaced wildlife attempt to locate new homes for themselves. Residents are urged to 'bear with' the changes as wild animals maintain their efforts to migrate into unscorched areas, away from the damage caused by the largest blaze in the Mesa Verde area in recorded history.