Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

November 18, 2000 - Issue 23


Mesa Verde

by Ray Grass Deseret News outdoor editor

Photos by Tom Smart, Deseret News


Lessons learned from 1996 fire help save ancient treasures from this year's conflagration

MESA VERDE, Colo. Sometime after noon, during one of the hottest, driest days in July, Nature decided it was time to do some housecleaning. With a single bolt of lightning she reduced 24,000 acres of grasses and pines and Utah junipers to ash.

Two weeks later, not satisfied, she made a second strike. This time the fire burned 5,000 acres.

Two fires in two weeks, with less than a day between them to breathe. These were fires that were so hot they caused rock to explode, porcelain to melt and a once pristine countryside to be reduced to a wasteland.

Wildfires burned perilously close to several ruins, including Long House, above, in Mesa Verde National Park.

Incredibly spared, again, was a small corridor that tourists have come to know as "the park," which includes the park buildings, guest accommodations and the best remnants of what condominium living was like a thousand years ago.

Since becoming a national park in 1906, Mesa Verde has long been considered one of the country's greatest links with the past. The ancient dwellings are among the most magnificent ever discovered, some reaching up three stories and nestled in alcoves hundreds of feet high. Some of the dwellings are mere holes dug in the ground, called "pithouses," while some are massive complexes of connecting rooms and round towers.

The Mesa Verde area was, for early residents living there between 600 and 1300 A.D., the place to be. Its location, atop an extended mesa, keeps it 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the valley below.

Five earlier fires, the first in 1934 and the latest in 1996, also burned the land but spared "the park." Now comes the job of regenerating the land. Within a week after the last spark was doused, the process was started with a fresh blanket of green grass and oak leaves against the black ash.

Park officials say that come spring the contrast of new growth against the seared land will be exquisite.
Gratefully, they add, despite the intensity of the fires, damage was kept to a minimum an old cabin, restroom, trailer, day-use building, with bookstore and soft-drink stand, and a public telephone.

Had the winds not shifted when they did, however, buildings and ruins and more than a million historical treasures could have been in danger.

Part of the credit goes back to the things learned in the '96 fire.

The first fire, called the "Bircher Fire," started around noon last July 20. It burned 1,000 acres the first day, another 5,000 the second and then, fed by high winds and low humidity, burned out of control.

It was never the intent of park officials to let the Mesa Verde fires burn uncontrolled as happened in Yellowstone. Too many buildings and too much history to lose.

Fires of this intensity could have caused the stone walls to crumble, ancient timbers to burn and protective cliffs to crumble and fall.

In the '96 fire, for example, a wall of Indian rock art, considered of extreme value, was literally peeled off the face of a cliff. Park officials, as with Humpty-Dumpty, had considered bonding it back together. American Indians, however, said it was nature's wish, it was her fire, so leave it as it fell.

What park officials also learned from '96 was that fire burns but also uncovers. Nearly 400 new historical sites were found after that fire.

This time, trained archaeologists were brought in, decked out in firefighting gear and sent out to the fire lines. Along with cutting and digging and stomping on cinders, their purpose was to identify known ancient sites and scout out new ones.
"Fighting the fire came first; preserving archaeological sites was second," said Jane Anderson, a park ranger. "If there was a site in the path of the crew, then it was up to the crew boss to see if it was possible to change course or go around it. If it wasn't possible, then the archaeologists mapped the sites as best they could and the fight went on."

Not true, she continued, is the conjecture that park staff are glad the park burned, thus uncovering new discoveries. The best protection, they claimed, of historical sites if for them to stay hidden.

A wild turkey searches for food in an area burned by wildfires.

"Fire is nothing we want to see happen. It's a negative," added Anderson.

William Morris, chief of interpretation for the park, said it's almost certain some of the new finds will include bones.

"Our commitment to the 25 Native American tribes we are affiliated with is that we cover over the bones, leave and never come back," he said.

The thing park officials are most afraid of at this point is the threat of erosion over the barren land.

"A couple of good downpours, before we can get things stabilized, and we could be in real trouble. We're already seeing places where walls are being eroded, dirt is spilling into kivas and ash and silt are being washed into the streams, threatening the fish and wildlife," said Morris.

The park finally opened at 6 a.m. on Aug. 4, when the Bircher Fire was officially out. Twelve hours later the park closed again to contend with the smaller "Pony Fire."

The park wouldn't open again until Aug. 14. All total, it was closed for 23 1/2 days during the peak of the tourist season. The money lost, everything from gate fees to knickknacks left sitting on the shelves, is substantial and unrecoverable.
More than a thousand firefighters worked the Bircher Fire; many of those, more than 500, stayed on to fight the Pony Fire.

What came immediately after the fire was, again, a byproduct from the '96 fire, BAER or the burn area emergency rehabilitation team. Teams of experts, from archaeologists to hydrologists to operations managers, converged on the scene the second the smoke cleared. They had 10 days from the hour of containment to complete a report on the steps necessary to rehabilitate the park.

With the team came $3.8 million in emergency rehabilitation money. Park staff now have three years to complete the work. Immediate concerns focused on replacing 11,000 feet of burned guardrail, the extensive reseeding of 6,000 acres of burned land and working to control erosion. These procedures came about in an agreement between the park and the 24 tribes and include mulching material to hold the soils, diverting logs and reseeding.

Surrounded by a burned landscape,
Ranger Morris stands on a walkway.


Indians themselves looked upon the fire as the wishes of a higher order. Morris said he knows of two tribes who performed healing ceremonies on the park land, which Indians hold sacred. It's likely more performed private ceremonies.

The reseeding program also sprouted from the '96 fire. Reseeding with native plants gives them growing advantages over non-native and unwanted plants, like the dreaded thistle. They will do the same for these fires.

Work now will rest with the treatment crew. The target is 50 people, realizing, of course, that "200 people would make the work go faster," said Anderson, "but the reality is that logistically we wouldn't be able to handle 200 people in the park."

For now, crews are stabilizing the land, checking on the old sites and plotting the new ones, minimizing erosion, removing brush from around buildings and simply being thankful that the heart of the park was left intact and open.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde



Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.