Eight U.S. Forest Service archaeologists are working side by side with fire crews, identifying sites of cultural significance as bulldozers attempt to dig firebreaks to prevent further damage.
The 46,283-acre Cerro Grande fire, which has destroyed more than 220 homes, is burning on federal and Indian land where thousands of archaeological and historical sites are at risk, said Mike Elliott, assistant archaeologist for the Santa Fe National Forest.
Since the fire began May 4, the Forest Service has searched the area for such sites, including ancient Indian ruins and evidence of prehistoric man. ``We've come up with about 3,120 previously recorded archaeological sites. The oldest sites are in the archaic period, about 5500 B.C. to 600 A.D.,'' Elliott said Monday. ``Probably we're looking at about half the sites in our extended search area that have had some damage.''
Elliott has been out on the fire lines, looking for ``scatters,'' rock fragments left by ancient man, and for such features as hearths, adobe walls or the ruins of cabins.
The fire has already destroyed sensitive archaeological sites on the edge of Santa Clara Pueblo at Santa Clara Canyon, said tribal fire spokesman Alvin Warren.
``There are many cultural resources that burned,'' Warren said. ``The canyon itself is very important to the Santa Clara Pueblo culture.''
Elliott said some ruins in the fire zone likely represent the ancestors of Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and possibly San Juan Indians.
``We would have Anasazi remains, pre-puebloan,'' added Judy Propper, regional archaeologist for the Forest Service's Southwest Region. ``You could have hunting camps.''
The fire could uncover some previously unknown sites, but the intense heat could split and chemically alter rocks at the sites.
``There is very little good about this fire,'' Elliott said.
He said archaeologists are already planning ways to protect what is left after the fire is extinguished - particularly from erosion expected once the summer rains come.
``We can't fix what the fire has done to the sites,'' he said. ``But we can slow erosion and other problems in the future.''
Los Alamos will have a rocky, lunar-landscape look after the smoke clears and dead trees start falling, he predicted. But, he said, ``the forest has burned before and it will heal.''