Two more wildfires are burning near Flagstaff, an area that is home to thousands of years of archaeological artifacts. The flames and the tools used to extinguish the fire threaten these historical vestigeswhich include several heritage sites and national monuments.
Wildfires in Arizona have grown increasingly powerful in recent decades, posing an increased threat to areas where fire protection plans were previously less urgent. The endangerment of scientific and archaeological resources this month highlights what the country’s forested mountainous areas stand to lose as they burn more intensely each year.
“As the area of wildfires gets bigger and bigger – the area burned and the fires get more severe, all because of climate change – we have to expect that the infrastructure we put in these areas are threatened in a way that they would not have been 50 years ago,” said Don Falk, professor of natural resources at the University of Arizona.
Although summer has only just begun, dozens of large wildfires are already active across the country – a symbol of why the US Forest Service has increasingly begun to refer to the “years of fire” rather than fire seasons. The number of fires recorded this year far exceeded the ten-year average fires generally recorded on this date, burning more than 3 million acres, much of it in the West Mountain. Nine new large wildfires were reported on Tuesday, bringing the total to 45 active fires.
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The Contreras Fire, which consumed parts of the Kitt Peak Observatory, was started June 11 by lightning on a remote mountain ridge on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. A heat wave and the region’s steep, rugged terrain complicated efforts to fight the blaze, which has since spread to nearly 30,000 acres. With the wildfire half under control, firefighters are counting on rain to smother the flames this week while hoping lightning doesn’t fuel further outbreaks.
The mountaintop where the observatory sits remains evacuated and without power, limiting the ability of observatory officials to fully assess the four telescopes closest to where the fire burned. The equipment does not appear to have been seriously damaged but may have been affected by heat, smoke or ash, said Lori Allen, director of medium-sized observatories at NOIRLab, which operates the observatory.
“It would delay our research, but we wouldn’t have to start from scratch,” she said. “If we come out of this with all the telescopes up and uninjured, I think we’ll consider that a victory.”
Either way, Allen said, scientists at the observatory will likely be sidelined from their work for months. The mountain’s power grid must be stabilized, equipment must be cleared of ashes and fire retardants, and instruments must be restored to full functionality before research can resume.
Observatory staff prepared to evacuate as the fire approached last week, Allen said – covering optical surfaces and turning off instruments in a controlled manner. When the flames grew faster than expected, the roughly 15 observatory staff who remained on the mountain on Friday left the facility.
The experience, Allen said, served as a reminder that wildfire risk is a real and present threat in the Southwest.
“Now is the time to seriously think about where we are environmentally and where we need to go,” she said.
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About 300 miles to the north, the Pipeline and Haywire fires span more than 30,000 acres that hold thousands of remnants of the area’s Indigenous history. The fires forced Wupatki National Monument, which was a center of commerce and culture in the 12th century, to close on June 13 due to threats of forest fires for the second time this year. It reopened on Wednesday after staff rushed to protect its artifacts.
The cliff dwellings, pottery and arrowheads that dot the landscape are vulnerable to damage from flames and fire extinguishing tools, such as bulldozers and shovels. Firefighters typically work with resource advisors to avoid or be more cautious in the locations of known artifacts and other valuables, said Molly Hunter, a University of Arizona natural resources professor and expert in forest fires.
“There’s a lot of care that goes into making sure the lines of fire won’t impact those resources,” Hunter said. “But of course we don’t know where they all are, so there’s still some damage that could be done.”
The heat from the flames can collapse settlement walls, crack stone tools and destroy painted designs that indicate when a piece of pottery was made and what it was used for, said landscape ecologist Rachel Loehman at the US Geological Survey.
“It’s a really big deal because archaeologists use these artifacts to interpret the past,” Loehman said. “And so if you change the nature of these artifacts or cause a loss of information, it may make it more difficult or impossible for archaeologists to make that interpretation.”
The Coconino National Forest, where the Pipeline and Haywire fires are raging, is well adapted to the fire. Hundreds of years ago, low-intensity fires would erupt every few years, Loehman said. Indigenous communities also used controlled fires to clear land for agriculture, control pests, or grow plant material for baskets.
Now, Loehman said, denser forests are creating more intense and energetic fires that can kill trees and destroy artifacts that haven’t previously endured their scorching heat. The loss of these artifacts can be especially devastating for the descendants of the Indigenous peoples who lived there, Loehman said.
Dramatic changes in forests, meanwhile, can make it difficult for archaeologists to connect the material remains of a community to its environment, she said – another type of knowledge lost as wildfires in the region become more destructive.
“It removes our ability to understand the ecological framework that people lived in, which is really tied to the archaeological record,” Loehman said. “It happens to be a living part of the archaeological record.”