Indiana Jones helps with wildfires, too

Archaeologists are working alongside firefighters to help them identify and avoid sites that may be in the path of containment lines or recently exposed by the Weber Fire.

The 8,930-acre fire is burning six miles east of Mesa Verde National Park, a trove of archaeological sites that date back to the ancestral Puebloans who made Southwest Colorado their home from A.D. 600 to 1300.

The sites are not confined to park boundaries; rather, they are scattered throughout the region in similar densities, said Kay Barnett, an archaeologist at Mesa Verde.

“There are a lot of things that can and do and should occur following the fires,” she said.

Archaeologists serve as resource advisers to fire crews, helping them locate cultural resources and avoid disturbing them while sawing through timber or bulldozing a fire line.

“Obviously, human life is going to come first,” Barnett said. “But avoiding the archaeological sites is what we’re out there to do if possible.”

Mesa Verde had one archeologist helping firefighters Tuesday on the Weber Fire, she said.

Wildfires can expose new archaeological sites never before documented. They also can further expose pre-existing sites.

“Oftentimes, new sites are discovered because of the loss of surface vegetation,” she said.

At Mesa Verde, it is common practice for archaeologists to accompany firefighters working to contain wildfires in park boundaries. New sites are usually left in the ground. Sometimes protective measures can be done to prevent erosion and help preserve newly exposed sites.

“Erosion control is the biggest measure following the fire, as far as archaeological sites go,” Barnett said.

Archaeologists helping fire crews are certified to do the work.

“I’m glad someone’s paying a little bit of attention to the cultural resources.” Barnett said.

shane@durangoherald.com