Arizona fires wipe out ancient ruins and craft-rich lands


Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) — Jason Nez scans rugged mountains, high deserts, and cliff slopes for signs of ancient tools and dwellings unique to the Southwestern United States. He keeps in mind that they are part of the big picture.

And fire is nothing new to them.

“They got burned over and over again, and it’s healthy,” said Navajo archaeologist and firefighter Nez. “Many of our cultural resources that we consider to be alive, and creatures are resilient.”

During centuries of wildfires in the mountainous regions of northern Arizona, flames have crossed dense lands reminiscent of human existence. Long before fire suppression became a tactic.

Today, fire brigades avoid or minimize damage to archaeological sites and relics from bulldozers and other modern tools, and protect what is open to future generations so that history is not lost. We are working harder and harder.

“Some of those pottery, some of those pottery huts (broken pottery) you see there, have that power to change the way we see how humans are here.” Nezu said.

Crew efforts include recruiting people to advise them on wildlife and habitat, air quality and archeology. In Arizona, several archaeologists have walked miles in recent months to find evidence of meaningful past human activity in and around the scorched area and mapped it for protection.

Just last week, the crew discovered a semi-burial dwelling known as the Pit House over 1,000 years ago.

“We know that this area is very important to the tribe and is an ancestral land for the tribe,” said Jean Stevens, an archaeologist and tribal expert at the US Forest Office. I am saying. “When we do more research work, it helps to add more pieces to the puzzle in terms of what’s in the landscape.”

It’s not just the scattered archaeological sites that need protection.

The nearby Wupatki National Monument (a trading center for indigenous communities around the 1100s) has been evacuated due to two wildfires this year. On display there are valuable items such as corn, beans and pumpkins 800 years ago, as well as the intact stone clovis cusp used for hunting about 13,000 years ago.

An artifact because the wildfire was not considered an imminent threat to Upatoki before the first wildfire broke out in April, forcing the evacuation of monuments and hundreds of homes outside Flagstaff. There was no plan on how quickly to retrieve.

“The conditions have changed due to climate change, so a new plan has been made,” said Gwen Garenstein, a curator of the monument.

Gallenstein assembled a nested box with cavities for large items and foam pouches for arrowheads and other small artifacts. She said she had pictures of each item so anyone in charge of packaging could know exactly where to put them.

Gallenstein was woven with ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals and cotton cultivated in the area before another major wildfire broke out on June 12 and the monument was closed again. I have created a training plan on how to pack and so on. No one expected the plan to be put into action immediately.

Fires have avoided the facility so far. Some box items, dating back to what archaeologists say, are of different indigenous cultures and were taken to the Northern Arizona Museum for storage.

Some Hopi consider the people who lived in Upatoki to be their ancestors. The Navajo later settled in the area, but slowly left, either voluntarily or under pressure, from the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate the private use of the monumental land in 1924.

The monument has approximately 2,600 archaeological sites spanning 54 square miles (141 square kilometers), demonstrating the concentration of culture on the four corners of the Colorado Plateau, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet. The region includes the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Hopimesa, Volcanic Burnt Fields, the largest adjacent Ponderosa pine forest in the United States, and San Francisco Peaks, the sacred mountain of 13 Native American tribes.

“It gives you an idea of ​​the density of cultural history here, and it continues to the national forest outside the boundaries of the national monument,” says Lauren Carter, the main interpretation ranger of the monument. I did.

The Coconino National Forest at the southern tip of the plateau surveyed only 20% of the 2,900 square miles (7,510 square kilometers) and recorded 11,000 archaeological sites, Stevens said. Reforestation work, including mechanical thinning and open burning, has given archaeologists the opportunity to map sites and record items. According to Stevens, the current wildfire is expected to increase discovery, especially in remote areas.

The dry climate helps protect many relics and archaeological sites. However, it is also the type of environment that is prone to wildfires. In particular, the climate-related drought has burned down the region, mixing strong winds and heat that were very common in the western United States this spring.

Stevens recalled a wildfire in 2006 in White Mountain, eastern Arizona, where prison crew members encountered a large Kiba. This is a circular stone structure that is built into the earth and used for ceremonies. “It was really remarkable,” she said. “Where we’re on fire lately, we have a lot of research and knowledge, but we’re always ready for that new discovery.”

Nez also made unusual discoveries, including two clovis ridges on the hillside and village locations that he did not expect to see.

“There’s a pottery hut, there’s a projectile point,” he tells firefighters and managers. “In native culture, they are there and we respect them by leaving them alone.”


Fonseca is a member of AP’s racial and ethnic team. Follow her on her Twitter at