FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — As Jason Nez scours rugged mountains, high deserts, and cliffs for traces of ancient tools and dwellings unique to the U.S. Southwest, he keeps in mind that they are part of a greater whole.
And fire is not new to them.
“They’ve been burned many, many times, and that’s healthy,” says Nez, a Navajo archaeologist, and firefighter. “We see many of our cultural resources as living, and living things are resilient.”
As a few wildfires surround this mountainous northern Arizona town, the flames sweep over land densely littered with memories of human existence through the ages—multi-story stone houses, rock carvings and bits of clay, and ceramic pots that well preserved in the arid climate since long before firefighting became a tactic.
Today, firefighters increasingly work to prevent or minimize damage from bulldozers and other modern tools on archaeological sites and artifacts and to protect those on display to the public to ensure that history is not lost to future generations.
“Some of those arrowheads, some of those pottery shards you see there, have the power to change the way we look at how people were here,” Nez said.
The crews’ efforts include recruiting people to advise them on wildlife, habitat, air quality, and archaeology. In Arizona, a handful of archaeologists have walked miles in recent months to locate and map evidence of meaningful human activity in and around scorched areas of the past for protection.
Last week, a crew spotted a half-buried home known as a pithouse.
“We know this area is very important to tribes, and it’s ancestral land for them,” said US Forest Service archaeologist and tribal relations specialist Jeanne Stevens. “As we do more surveying work, it helps to add more pieces to the puzzle regarding what can be seen in the landscape.”
It’s not just the scattered ruins that need to be protected.
Nearby Wupatki National Monument – a trade center for indigenous communities around the 1100s – was evacuated twice this year due to wildfires. Exhibits there contain priceless artifacts, including 800-year-old corn, beans, and pumpkin, along with intact Clovis points or stone arrowheads, dating back some 13,000 years.
Before the first wildfire struck in April, forcing the evacuation of the monument and hundreds of homes outside of Flagstaff, there was no set plan to get the artifacts away quickly, said Lauren Carter, the monument’s lead interpretive ranger.
“The Tunnel Fire made it a — excuse the pun — a burning issue to finalize the plan,” she said.
Conservator Gwenn Gallenstein assembled nested boxes with cavities for larger objects and foam bags for arrowheads and other smaller things. She said she had photos of each item so anyone in charge of packaging would know exactly where to put them.
Gallenstein was able to train one person in packing ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals, textiles woven from cotton grown in the area, and other things before another major bushfire broke out on June 12, and the monument was closed again. No one expected the plan to go into effect so quickly.
The fires have so far been able to avoid the facility. Several boxes of items dating back to what archaeologists believe are different indigenous cultures were taken to the Northern Arizona Museum for safekeeping.
Some Hopi clans consider those who lived in Wupatki as their ancestors. Navajo families later settled in the area but left slowly, either voluntarily or under pressure from the National Park Service, which wanted to eliminate private land use when it became a landmark in 1924.
The monument has some 2,600 archaeological sites spread across 141 square miles, representing a convergence of cultures on the Colorado Plateau at the Four Corners where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet. The region includes the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Hopi mesas, volcanic cinder fields, the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the U.S., and the San Francisco Peaks – a mountain sacred to 13 Native American tribes.
“That gives you an idea of the density of the cultural history here, and it extends beyond the national monument boundaries into the state forest,” said Carter.
Stevens said that the Coconino National Forest on the plateau’s southern edge has explored just 20% of its 2,900 square miles (7,510 square kilometers) and recorded 11,000 archaeological sites. Forest restoration work, including mechanical thinning and prescription burns, has allowed archaeologists to map locations and log items. Stevens said that more discoveries are expected because of the current wildfires, especially in the more remote areas.
The arid climate has helped preserve many of the artifacts and sites. But it’s also the type of environment prone to wildfires, especially with a mix of high winds and heat that was all too common in the western U.S. this spring when megadroughts linked to climate change shook the region.
Stevens recalled working on a 2006 wildfire in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, and a prison staff encountered a large kiva — a round stone built into the earth and used for ceremonies. “That was really remarkable,” she said. “Where we’ve had fires lately, we’ve got a lot of research and knowledge, but we’re always ready for that new discovery.”
Nez, too, has made rare finds, including two Clovis points and mountainside village locations he didn’t expect to see.
“There will be pottery shards, projectile points,” he tells firefighters and managers. “In indigenous cultures, those things are there, and we respect them by leaving them alone.”
Fonseca is a member of the A.P.’s Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP.