How archaeologists play a central role during wildfire season

Archaeologists play a central role during wildfire season
Posted at 9:35 AM, Jul 06, 2021

When flames from wildfires rip through native lands, it not only threatens people's homes and businesses but historical sites that tell our country's history.

“These places are important reflections of who we are, that ground us and keep us humble in this changing world,” said Jason Nez, a wildfire archaeologist.

Ancient structures and fossilized evidence can be found in nearly every corner of Arizona. Nez is one of the experts called in to make sure those sites survive by mapping out threatened areas and taking action.

“We help local fire resources implement protection measures which could be wrapping shelters with shelter wrap, or digging line around it, or potentially burning in front of those areas to help save them from the really hot main fire,” said Nez.

He says since humans began putting wildfires out over the last 100 years, brush that would have naturally burned has now overgrown, producing hotter, more complex fires.

“So that can cause pigments to change colors, that can cause rock faces to spall and exfoliate from the intense heat, that can cause rocks to burst or mortar to turn to dust when it gets hot enough,” said Nez.

Fires can potentially erase some of the nation's most sacred locations filled with some of the earliest evidence of Native American culture. As the Rafael Fire burned near Sedona last month, Nez was called in to protect a 700-year-old site called Honanki, from the ancient Sinagua tribe.

“That evidence is the footprints of those prehistoric people, and they’re talking to us, they’re telling us how they lived, they’re telling us who they were, they’re telling us how they conducted their daily lives," said Nez.

These sites continue to teach future generations today, something Nez is doing everything in his power to make sure doesn’t disappear.

“Without these places, that part of our identity and our culture is gone, we need every last one of these that we can save,” said Nez.

He says while fires can certainly damage particular types of archaeological sites, sometimes they can uncover them or other relics.

He says a few years ago, a fire in northern Arizona helped reveal a 15,000-year-old Clovis point or arrowhead among the ashes.

This story was originally published by Cameron Polom at KNXV.