Arizona fires are sweeping land rich in signs of ancient life

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – As Jason Nez sweeps steep mountains, high deserts and cliffs for signs of ancient tools and homes unique to the southwestern United States, he has in mind that they are part of a larger picture.

And, fire is not new to them.

“They have been burned many, many times, and that is healthy,” said Nez, a Navajo archaeologist and firefighter. “Many of our cultural resources are considered alive and living beings are resilient.”

As a couple of fires engulf this mountain town in northern Arizona, flames cross the earth dense with reminders of human existence over the centuries – multi-level stone houses, petroglyphs and pieces of clay and pottery well preserved in the then arid climate. before extinguishing the fire becomes regular.

Today, fire crews are working harder to prevent or minimize damage from bulldozers and other modern tools at archeological sites and sites, and to protect those on public display to ensure that history is not lost to future generations.

“Some of these arrowheads, some of those pottery fragments you see out there have the power to change the way we see people here,” Nez said.

Crew efforts include recruiting people to advise them on wildlife and habitats, air quality and archeology. In Arizona, a handful of archaeologists have walked miles in recent months locating evidence of significant past human activity in and around burned areas and mapping them for protection.

Just last week, a crew spotted a half-buried house known as a pit house.

“We know this area is really important to the tribes and it is an ancestral land for them,” said Jeanne Stevens, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service and a tribal expert. “When we do more research, it helps to add more pieces to the puzzle in terms of what’s in the landscape.”

It is not just scattered ruins that need protection.

The nearby Wupatki National Monument – a trade center for indigenous communities around 1100 – has been evacuated by fire twice this year. The exhibits there contain priceless items, such as 800-year-old corn, beans and squash, along with intact Clovis spots or stone arrowheads dating back about 13,000 years.

Prior to the first fire in April, which forced the evacuation of the monument and hundreds of homes outside Flagstaff, there was no set plan for how the artifacts could be removed quickly, said Lauren Carter, the monument’s chief interpreter.

“The Tunnel fire made it – excuse the pun – a topical issue for finalizing the plan,” he said.

Curator Gwenn Gallenstein assembled insert boxes with cavities for larger objects and foam cases for arrowheads and other smaller objects. He had photos of each item so anyone who took over the packaging knew exactly where to put them, he said.

Gallenstein was able to train a person on how to pack ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals, woven cotton fabrics grown in the area and more before another major fire broke out on June 12 and the monument closed again. No one expected to implement the plan so soon.

Fires have so far avoided installation. Several boxes of items dating back to what archaeologists say are indigenous cultures were taken to the Museum of Northern Arizona for safekeeping.

Some Hopi tribes consider those who lived in Wupatki to be ancestors. The Navajo families later settled in the area, but slowly left, either voluntarily or under pressure from the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate private land use as soon as it became a monument in 1924.

The monument has approximately 2,600 archeological sites in 54 square miles (141 square kilometers), representing a convergence of cultures on the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. The area includes the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Hopi Mesa, the volcanic meadows, the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the United States, and the peaks of San Francisco – a mountain sacred to 13 Native American tribes.

“It gives you an idea of ​​the density of cultural history here, and it goes beyond the boundaries of national monuments in the national forest,” Carter said.

The Coconino National Park at the southern tip of the plateau has surveyed just 20% of its 2,900 square miles (7,510 square kilometers) and recorded 11,000 archeological sites, Stevens said. Forest restoration work involving mechanical thinning and prescription burns has given archaeologists the opportunity to map sites and record objects. More discoveries are expected due to today’s fires, especially in the most remote areas, Stevens said.

The arid climate contributed to the preservation of many of the artifacts and sites. But it is also the type of climate that is prone to fires, especially with a mixture of strong winds and heat that were very common in the US West this spring, as climate change is heating the region.

Stevens recalled working on a fire in 2006 in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and a prison crew came across a magnificent kiva – a circular stone built into the earth and used for ceremonies. “This was something that was really remarkable,” he said. “Where we have had fires lately, we have a lot of research and a lot of knowledge, but we are always ready for this new discovery.”

Nez has also made rare finds, including two Clovis spots and villages on a hillside he did not expect to see.

“There will be fragments of pottery, there will be bullet points,” he told firefighters and managers. “In indigenous cultures, these things are out there and we respect them by leaving them alone.”


Fonseca is a member of the AP Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at

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