History and Fire

Suppressing fire while protecting history

Andrew Avitt Pacific Southwest August 30, 2023

Two wildland firefighters, holding shovels, standing in front of an ancient native american rock structure under a stone cliff.
Michael Terlep and Jason Nez during the Rafael Fire at Honanki Heritage Site on the Coconino National Forest (Red Rock District) (USDA Forest Service photo by Paul Dawson).

Editor’s note: On August 8, 2023, President Biden designated nearly 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon National Park as the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, part of which includes a ranger district on the Kaibab National Forest. A wealth of cultural and archaeological history makes this area especially significant. The author spoke with two archaeologists who protect these areas from disturbances, including a recent wildfire in the area.

The relationship between humans and the land is a story since time immemorial. The landscape still bears many of the markings, dwellings, belongings and remains from those who lived long ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service and other federal land management agencies are constantly surveying the land for these sites that serve as windows into our past, while protecting them from natural disturbances such as wildfire.

The Southwest has plenty of both – history and fire.

Histories of the Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo Tribes, and the more recent histories of Spanish explorers, settlers, pioneers and cowboys can be found across Arizona and New Mexico.

A wildland firefighter using a smartphone to take a picture of an ancient petroglyph panel in front of him.
Michael Terlep looking at Snake Gulch style rock art dating to the early agricultural/Basketmaker II period (200 bc-ad 500). (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Jason Nez, a fire archaeologist with the National Park Service, and Michael Terlep, an archaeologist with the Kaibab National Forest, said that the recent announcement of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument emphasizes the need to protect these resources and speaks to the importance of these areas.

“We’re protecting 23,000 years of Indigenous history, and hundreds of years of Euro-American history,” said Nez, who has worked to protect cultural and historical artifacts in northern Arizona for 13 years. “As an Indigenous person, a member of the Navajo Tribe, saving the smallest artifact is saving a little bit of our tribal identity.”

Nez uses old survey data or, if none exists, conducts new surveys to ensure that proposed projects such as prescribed fires and infrastructure development do not damage artifacts and other cultural resources.

This expertise also lends itself to fire suppression efforts, such as the case for this year’s Kane Fire just north of the Grand Canyon on the border between the Kaibab National Forest and newly announced monument.

An ancient corrugated pottery sherd held by two hands.
Shinarump corrugated sherd from a jar. AD 1050-1200. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Nez is just one of many resource advisors, including three archaeologists and one biologist, assigned to the Kane Fire. Their job, as the title suggests, is to advise fire managers on how to protect any given type of resource.

“On a large fire, there might be hydrologists, biologists, fisheries specialists, botanists and timber specialists, among others,” said Nez. “Almost every scientific discipline can provide something that’s useful for fire management and suppression repair.”

“As archaeologists, we develop recommendations and monitor operational activities to minimize impacts to historical and cultural resources,” he continued. “We’re typically embedded with firefighters out on the fireline to help facilitate on-the-spot decision making to mitigate potential damage.”

Nez, who has both worked with and as a firefighter, said that members from each profession have great respect for the other.

“They know my skillset and I know theirs. If damage has to happen, if communities or lives are at risk, we work together to save those valuable resources and minimize damage.”

A large boulder in the aftermath of a wildand fire, having broken apart due to the heat of a fire.
A cracked boulder within the Kane Fire footprint shows how extreme heat can damage rock structures and art. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Michael Terlep, a district archaeologist for the North Kaibab Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest, is working alongside Nez and other resource advisors on the Kane Fire. He highlights some of the many wildfire risks to suppression efforts on historical and cultural sites. Although wildfire can damage rock art, wooden cabins and other artifacts, the amount of harm really depends on how hot a fire burns.

“If it’s a low intensity fire, it’s probably not going to damage too much,” Terlep said. “But high intensity fire can crack masonry and uproot trees exposing burials. So, in those cases, we try to get out there and prep the site. We get in there with a sawyer crew and trim back some of that vegetation. So, when the fire does move through there, it won’t be as hot.”

Firefighters and archaeologists also work in canyons to reduce fuels where known archaeological sites have been recorded.

“If fire gets into a canyon, it can move really fast, so getting in there to trim back that vegetation and keep it away from the rock art was an important first step when the fire first started,” he added.

But often wildfire itself isn’t the main concern. These same artifacts and historical sites have survived many thousands of years of natural fire on the landscape.

Two wildland firefighters in a forest, observing something off in the distance. One person is using binoculars.
Jason Nez, a fire archaeologist with the National Park Service and Ryan Dastrup wildlife biologist with the Kaibab National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

“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,” said Terlep, “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.”

Resource advisors like Nez and Terlep embed with firefighters and sometimes work ahead of crews and bulldozers, surveying the land ahead of potential disturbances.

Archaeologists like them are called up earlier and more frequently as land management agencies place greater emphasis on protecting cultural sites in recent years.

“From the get-go when the Kane Fire first started as a half-acre fire caused by a lightning strike, we were called immediately because anytime firefighting activities might disturb archaeological site, we can be an asset, and advise on the best way forward,” said Terlep.

“It will always be important to protect our resources, whether that’s from wildfire, mining, or development,” said Nez. “When we look at federal lands, we’re looking at a mirror. How we manage federal lands is how we manage ourselves. Saving and enhancing landscapes enhances our identity, it empowers us, and it gives us this strength.”