By Katherine Hodge, Public Education Coordinator 

Wildfires are interesting to read about, but nearly impossible for an outsider like myself to adequately understand in just a few days. With that in mind, we decided to follow the same model we adhere to with all of the curricula: contacting some experts! We do thorough and diligent research when creating our curricula, but one of our favorite parts is featuring the voices of experts like descendent community members or archaeologists. 

We reached out to experienced experts who are out there on the front lines and asked some questions. The first set of answers you see are from Dan Broockmann, a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist in Nevada. Below his answers are words from U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and firefighter, Jennifer Ryan.

How do archaeologists protect sites from fires? Is there even a way to do that?

[Mr. Broockmann] Most of us archaeologists who work on fire these days do so as Resource Advisors.  When folks ask me what that means I find the easiest way to explain it is to tell them that I serve as “the Lorax”.  I speak for the trees… and the threatened/endangered animals and plants, wilderness areas, places of cultural/heritage importance (which includes archaeological sites), and just about any other resource you can think of.

[Ms. Ryan] We protect sites in numerous ways, depending on site type.  It starts with pre-planning and knowing what sites may exist in a given area.  From there, we may do fuels reduction around flammable wooden features, to pre-treatment using chemicals such as foam or gel, to application of water. From there, the technical specialist (Fire Archeologist or Resource Advisor) assigned to the fire will direct immediate protection measures based on site type and surrounding conditions. It is important to note that not all sites require protection from fire itself.  Some site types may not be harmed by a low intensity fire, and should be left alone.  Other sites may have cultural reasons to avoid mitigation of fire effects using chemicals or equipment. 

What are the positives and/or negative effects of wildfires on archaeological sites?

[Mr. Broockmann] In terms of the protection of cultural/heritage resources, we do our best to protect as much as we can.  The great part about a lot of archaeological sites is that they are underground, so protected largely from the ravages of fire.  In terms of the fire itself, we focus on cultural resources that are sensitive to fire, such as rock art or historic cabins.  In cases where we have the time and ability, we can do things like try and put in fire lines around these features to keep fire from getting to close.  If we have a bunch of historic structures in a forest, we might try to wrap the structures in reflectant materials (similar to the material that they make “space blankets” out of) that will keep the heat lower on the structure and keep it from igniting.

[Ms. Ryan] Fire can have very obvious negative effects on flammable sites, such as total data loss or destruction of contributing features. Conversely,  fire can often add to our knowledge and understanding of sites by revealing artifacts and features that were previously obscured by vegetation.

How do wildfires in an area affect your understanding of the past?

[Mr. Broockmann] The biggest risk to most archaeological sites that are buried is actually from fire suppression activities (digging hand line or putting in bulldozer lines).  Many Native American people that I have consulted with on fires have expressed the sentiment that the land should burn and that they are not worried about ancestral sites.  What will do far more damage is putting a bulldozer fireline through the middle of a site.  To put it in context, this could be like having someone drive a bulldozer through your church.  To avoid damaging cultural resources in fire suppression activities, archaeologists have several strategies.  We [Archaeologists] can first check an area to see if it has been previously surveyed for cultural resources and make decisions about how to avoid sites.  If areas have not been surveyed we work with the rest of the folks on a fire to understand where they are going to put in fireline, then go survey it before they get there to make sure cultural resources won’t be disturbed or destroyed.  We never stand in the way of life or property, those always come first, but if we can help offer good advice to the people making decisions about how to avoid important areas, we do that.

After the fire has run its course, archaeologists are often called in to inspect and monitor known archaeological sites within a fire perimeter for damage.  Most often buried archaeological sites suffer very little from the effects of fire.  But, the removal of vegetation in lots of areas actually gives us a chance to find a lot more sites or determine how big previously recorded sites actually are!  This helps us to have a better understanding of site size, location, and density, which in turn helps us get a better idea of how a landscape has been used throughout time.

[Ms. Ryan] As we know, Native American groups have been managing the ecosystem using fire for thousands of years.  One could say that most landscapes in the west were treated by both planned and natural fire.   Fire suppression on a large scale started when logging became an important part of the American economy.  That led to the forest conditions we see today, with heavier fuel loading, many dead and unhealthy trees, and thus more intense, catastrophic wildfires.

Protecting archaeological sites from dangers like wildfire takes hard work, expertise, and a great deal of collaboration. However, thanks to the efforts and knowledge of people like Mr. Broockmann and Ms. Ryan, wildfires do not necessarily mean and end for threatened archaeological sites.

On the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we would like to take a moment to thank the firefighters, first responders, and people involved in protecting our communities during events like wildfires and other disasters. Project Archaeology is housed at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. As this blog series was written, we experienced a wildfire in our iconic Bridger Mountain Range which includes the communities within Bridger Canyon. The Bridger Foothills Fire burned homes, ranches, and farms in a blink of an eye. Our hearts hurt. Bozeman is just one example of what is going on in the western United States. Many children and students may have questions about wildland fire and firefighting. Smokey the Bear is a place to start learning how to talk to kids about fire safety and wildfire. They have resources to use at home and in the classroom. There are also important resources about responding to trauma in your classroom from Teaching Tolerance, Edutopia, and Educational Leadership. 

 

Resources US Forest Service employee Lisa Hanson generously provided:

  • Fire Archaeology FaceBook Page:  https://www.facebook.com/FireArchaeology
    this site is managed by Linn Gassaway (USFS – Lassen NF Heritage Manager) – also see the companion site firearchaeology.com
  • ARCH Cohorts – grassroots organization for anyone interested in obtaining ARCH qualification on wildfires, or is interested in using ARCHs on fires. Anyone can join; if interested, send an e-mail to linn.gassaway@usda.gov or margaret.hangan@usda.gov and request membership
  • Wildland Fire READ FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/wildlandfireREAD  
    This site is managed by several people, including me – mostly specific READ (Resource Advisor – includes protection of natural and cultural resources) needs on fires 
  • READ Cohorts – grassroots organization for anyone interested in the management and protection of natural and cultural resources on wildland fires. We host monthly educational webinars, and maintain a large repository  that includes reference material, policy docs, examples, training materials, how-to guides, etc – anyone can join; if interested, send an e-mail to lisa_hanson@nps.gov and request membership