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How Archaeologists Play A Role In The Forest Service's Response To Wildfires


Fires continue to burn through the West from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coastal forests. The first priority of emergency responders is of course to save lives and then to save homes, but many of these areas also contain historic and cultural artifacts. Maggie Mullen of Wyoming Public Radio talked to an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service who helps decide what should be preserved.

MAGGIE MULLEN, BYLINE: When Tara Hamilton inspects the site of a wildfire, sometimes she encounters an important piece of the past.

TARA HAMILTON: I actually have one here from a fire that we found last year in a fire line. That's pretty cool.

MULLEN: She opens a metal cabinet in her office in Laramie and pulls out a cutting tool the size of her hand.


HAMILTON: There's nothing diagnostic about it, so we can't tell how old it is, but these were used all through prehistory.

MULLEN: When she finds these things, she's not necessarily on the frontlines of a fire.

HAMILTON: A lot of the time, you can't even see the flames. You're just trying to get out there ahead of the emergency basically and figure out what's there and figure out how to protect it if you need to.

MULLEN: When she goes to a site, she doesn't always know how much time she'll have. It all depends on where and how aggressive the fire is. Hamilton says they look for clues on the surface of the ground, things like mounds, certain types of vegetation or a suspicious depression. These can indicate something important underground.

HAMILTON: No prehistoric sites are ever going to be made again, and we certainly don't know everything that we could know about those time periods - same with, say, turn-of-the-century mining camps or a logging railroad from the 1920s. That stuff's just not going to be made again.

MULLEN: If she thinks they're standing on a potential site, that area can become a priority for firefighters. She has a lot of the same gear they do. Some of the things seem pretty straightforward - water, surveys, a shovel, GPS. Then it gets a bit more serious - fire-resistant clothing and very specific footwear.

HAMILTON: We have to wear shoes that have the right soles so they won't burn up and melt out there.

MULLEN: And if that doesn't sound scary enough...

HAMILTON: One of the things that's absolutely required of everyone on the fire line is a fire shelter and - just in case you get in a bad situation and you can't get out.

MULLEN: But she doesn't always have to leave her desk. When fire strikes, she says she'll get a call from a fire manager.

HAMILTON: I need to know what cultural resources are in this area 'cause this is where the fire is headed.

MULLEN: Hamilton can use a geographic information system, or GIS, to look at detailed maps of the area and get a better idea of what they're dealing with.

HAMILTON: Where are the known sites? What kind of sites are they?

MULLEN: It could be anything from early indigenous settlements to evidence of pioneers who migrated to the West on the Oregon Trail.

HAMILTON: Those kinds of sites would be like a cabin, anything with organic components like wood or bone, that sort of thing. We have a lot of historic sites that are combustible.

MULLEN: If she can answer those questions using GIS, Hamilton stays put. In the end, wildfires aren't always a bad thing for archaeology. Hamilton says sometimes instead of destroying artifacts, fire reveals them.

HAMILTON: There's tons of things out there. People lived all over the place, but you might have, you know, a foot of pine duff, and you can't see what's under that until a fire goes through and burns it up.

MULLEN: Hamilton says she's itching to get back out there. Next week she'll head out to either California or Oregon. For NPR News, I'm Maggie Mullen in Laramie.

KELLY: And that story comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maggie Mullen