Archaeologists protect history from both fires and firefighters

The nation’s newest national monument has a long history of fighting off fire. Its future may mean defending its artifacts against firefighters.

The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — the Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in northern Arizona — was formally designated in August. The monument land includes three areas to the north and south of the Grand Canyon and takes up approximately 917,600 acres, according to the Forest Service.

Dedicating the new national monument
President Biden established the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in northern Arizona. The signing event brought together state and federal politicians, officials, and tribal leaders. August 2023 DOI photo.

These lands are at the heart of many tribes in the region, including the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Yavapai Prescott, Pueblo of Zuni, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

The tribes have called this area home for around 23,000 years, a history told through the numerous dwelling sites, pottery, and numerous other artifacts in the area.

Although a passing wildfire can damage artifacts, the fire itself isn’t often the main concern of the archaeologists in charge of protecting the monument. The cultural resources have existed in spite of the countless wildfires that have burned across the landscape, fires that subsequently give life to the Kaibab National Forest that surrounds the Grand Canyon. More often, archaeologists’ main concern is making sure the efforts of firefighters to contain a wildfire don’t put artifacts at risk.

“We’re not as concerned with the fire itself when fire-sensitive sites like wooden cabins and hogans are not present, but the tactics we often use to contain wildfire like constructing fuel breaks,” explained Michael Terlep, a district archaeologist for the North Kaibab Ranger District.

“The blade of a bulldozer, for example, scrapes the surface and disturbs at least the first six inches or more of topsoil, which might contain pottery, artifacts, arrowheads, tools, and prehistoric habitations. There is also the potential for ancestral burials to be disturbed.”

Terlep was one of the four resource advisors assigned to the Kane Fire that started on August 4 just north of the Grand Canyon. There, he was tasked with working ahead of crews, surveying the land, making sure fire suppression didn’t give way to cultural destruction.

“We were called immediately because anytime firefighting activities might disturb an archaeological site, we can be an asset, and advise on the best way forward,” Terlep said.

Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument presidential designation

Resource advisors have been deployed to wildfires since the 1970s, according to NPS. However, increasing recruitment and training efforts for the positions have reportedly become a national priority for the agency.

In the past four years, 1,300 students from federal, state, tribal, and local agencies completed the NPS resource advisor training, NPS notes on its website. “This represents an increase of 125 percent compared with the preceding four-year period. Hundreds of the graduates went on to assist on wildfires and other emergency incidents as resource advisors and archaeologists .”

Interested in becoming a resource advisor yourself? Sign up to be notified when the NPS virtual introductory course for 2024 opens in the spring.

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8 thoughts on “Archaeologists protect history from both fires and firefighters”

  1. A lot of conventional tactics can be highly destructive, depending upon context–and ineffective at the same time. Will researchers like Jack Cohen ever have any effect on fire bosses?

  2. I think Jack Cohen and his research and published results have already had a tremendous and positive effect on firefighters, Mr. W.

    Do you think he has been ignored?

  3. Thanks for the informative article and bringing forward the subject of archeological resource protection from wildfire suppression.
    I work on the San Juan NF near the Four Corners. Our ranger district is unique in that it shares office space and wildland firefighting resources with the Tres Rios BLM district of SW Colorado. The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is administered by the Tres Rios district. Canyons of the Ancients Nat Mon contains more Ancient Puebloan sites per square mile than anywhere in the SW. Whenever an IA is dispatched from the Tres Rios office an archeologist is always called out with the engine or IA crews. It’s fascinating to listen to the radio traffic from our lookout during the initial attack phase.

  4. @Benchmark Rick – Is this a new process? I worked out of the Dolores Combined Field Office and never saw the Archaeologist on IA. This was 10 years ago though.

    Also, if there was firefighting restrictions in the Canyon of the Ancients based on archaeological sites, nothing would ever get put out. I don’t think I EVER went on an IA there where we didn’t see pottery shards just laying on top of the soil.

  5. My last Duty Station with the USFS was on the Chemult Ranger District on the Winema NF in South Central Oregon. I retired in 1999 and then worked summers as an AD fire duty officer until 2004. The District Archeologist had a map of all known archeological sites that she kept under lock and key. Whenever there was a fire on the district she would check the Ark map and if one was near it, she or one of her Ark crew, would come out to the fire.

    The district has a lot of flat ground with large old growth Ponderosa Pine that had been railroad logged by the Pelican Bay Lumber Company in the early 1900s. There was a “Hub Camp” with rail road tracks in all directions extending out from the hub. The iron rails had been removed but the Ties remained as Artifacts. Later roads that had been built were built along side the ties.

    It was quite a challenge fighting fire or conducting an Rx burn as one side of a lot of roads couldn’t be used as a line to back fire from because the old railroad ties had to be protected.

  6. @Benchmark Rick Thank you for the kind words AND that information. It’s an incredibly intriguing position to be in and I’m super interested in how those convos between IAs and firefighters go. Oh to be able to hear that chatter!

  7. @Tom Jones I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. It’s definitely interesting to me that the ties are considered artifacts to be protected. I wonder if there is a date cutoff for what is considered historical preservation vs keeping something old from burning

  8. For ex-SQF, What a coincidence you were on the Dolores RD/Tres Rios. We’ve staffed Benchmark LO for six seasons. Typically the arcs are called out to the sites in Yellowjacket Canyon, Sand Canyon and Cross Csnyons where the bigger ruins are. You’re right about the potsherds littering the ground out there.

What do you think?