FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — As Jason Nez scans the rugged mountains, high desert and cliffs for signs of ancient tools and dwellings unique to the Southwestern United States, he keeps a mind that they are part of a larger whole.
And fire is not new to them.
“They’ve been burned many times, and it’s healthy,” said Nez, a Navajo archaeologist and firefighter. “Many of our cultural resources we consider to be alive, and living things are resilient.”
As a pair of wildfires rim this mountainous town in northern Arizona, the flames cut through land dense with reminders of human existence through the centuries – multi-level stone houses, carvings caves and pieces of clay and ceramic pots that have been well preserved in the arid climate since long before fire suppression became a tactic.
Today, fire crews increasingly strive to avoid or minimize damage from bulldozers and other modern tools to archaeological sites and artifacts, and to protect those on public display for s ensure that history is not lost to future generations.
“Some of these arrowheads, some of these pottery shards (broken ceramics) that you see there have the power to change the way we see how humans were here,” Nez said.
The teams’ efforts include recruiting people to advise them on wildlife and habitat, air quality and archaeology. In Arizona, a handful of archaeologists have traveled miles in recent months to find evidence of significant past human activity in and around burned areas and map it to protect it.
Just last week, a team spotted a half-buried dwelling over 1,000 years old known as a pit house.
“We know this area is really important to the tribes, and it’s ancestral land to them,” said Jeanne Stevens, a US Forest Service archaeologist and tribal relations specialist. “When we do more survey work, it helps add more pieces to the puzzle in terms of what’s on the landscape.”
It’s not just the scattered ruins that need to be protected.
The nearby Wupatki National Monument – a center of commerce for indigenous communities around the 1100s – has been evacuated due to wildfires twice this year. The exhibits here contain priceless artifacts, including 800-year-old corn, beans and squash, as well as intact stone Clovis spikes used for hunting that date back around 13,000 years.
Before the first wildfire hit in April, forcing the evacuation of the monument and hundreds of homes outside Flagstaff, there were no definite plans on how quickly to get the artifacts out, as the fires of forest were not considered an imminent threat to Wupatki.
“Now with climate change the conditions have become different, hence a new plan,” said the monument’s curator, Gwenn Gallenstein.
Gallenstein assembled nested boxes with cavities for larger objects and foam pouches for arrowheads and other smaller artifacts. She had photos for each item so the person packing them knew exactly where to put them, she said.
Gallenstein created a training plan on how to pack ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals, textiles woven from locally grown cotton and other things before another big fire from forest bursts on June 12 and the monument is closed again. No one expected to put the plan into action so soon.
Fires have so far avoided the facility. Several boxes of artifacts that date back to what archaeologists say are distinct Indigenous cultures have been taken to the Museum of Northern Arizona for safekeeping.
Some Hopi clans consider those who lived in Wupatki their ancestors. 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 use of the land once it became a monument in 1924 .
The monument has some 2,600 archaeological 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 region includes the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Hopi mesas, volcanic ash fields, the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the United States, and the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain sacred to 13 Native American tribes.
“It gives you a sense of the density of cultural history here, and it continues outside the boundaries of the national monument into the national forest,” said Lauren Carter, the monument’s lead interpretive ranger.
The Coconino National Forest, at the southern edge of the plateau, has surveyed only 20% of its 2,900 square miles (7,510 square kilometers) and recorded 11,000 archaeological sites, Stevens said. Forest restoration work that includes mechanical thinning and prescribed burns has given archaeologists the opportunity to map sites and record features. More discoveries are expected due to the current wildfires, especially in more remote areas, Stevens said.
The arid climate has helped preserve many artifacts and sites. But it’s also the type of environment that’s prone to wildfires, especially with a mix of high winds and heat that were all too common in the American West this spring as mega-droughts linked to climate change have inflamed the region.
Stevens recalls working on a wildfire in 2006 in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and a team of prisoners encountering a large kiva – a circular stone structure built into the dirt and used for ceremonies. “It was something really remarkable,” she said. “Where we have had fires recently, we have a lot of investigation and a lot of knowledge, but we are always ready for this new discovery.”
Nez, too, made rare finds, including two Clovis points and mountainside village sites he hadn’t expected to see.
“There are going to be potsherds, there are going to be projectile points,” he told firefighters and officials. “In Indigenous cultures, those things are there, and we respect them by leaving them alone.”
Fonseca is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP