Fire-fighting can threaten archaeological resources

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Georgia tmo 2011164 wildfire cropped

Image of the Honey Prairie Complex fires dated 13 June 2011, offered online here by the Earth Observatory, which is part of NASA. The black line is the Georgia–Florida border.

One consequence of wildfires is that they not only threaten homes, but they can also threaten archaeological resources. Buried features may be protected by the soil above them, but many archaeological features extend above the soil. This is true for hundreds of archaeological sites currently threatened by fires in New Mexico and Arizona.

A 14 June 2011 story on the National Geographic website, authored by Ker Than, discusses this issue, with illuminating quotes from Bob Schiowitz, the US Forest Service archaeologist for the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico:

“Most of these sites have been abandoned for at least 500 to 1,000 years, so over that time they’ve stabilized and have probably been burned over before,” Schiowitz said.

The majority of the artifacts—mostly fragments of ceramic bowls and jars and stone tools and weapons—are also relatively fire resistant.

Even so, the sites may now be more likely than ever to be harmed by fires, in part because for decades the Forest Service made a policy of stomping out blazes before they grow out of control. This can lead to a buildup of flammable plant material—adding fuel to future fires.

“There’s an unusually high buildup of fuels in some places, and that tends to make these fires a little more catastrophic than they might’ve been in [past centuries],” Schiowitz said.

For example, some Mogollon sites have experienced so few fires in recent decades that trees have begun to sprout from their ruins. When these trees catch fire, they can burn all the way down to their roots, baking the soil and any artifacts buried in it.

However, Schiowitz also makes the point that many of the archaeological resources date to the historic period, and include wooden structures and organic artifacts that will not survive intense wildfires.

But, southwestern North America has a far different topography and ecology than forest-rich lands here in Georgia. However, Georgia’s archaeological resources can also be threatened by fire.

Also this week, the third full week in June 2011, the online Florida Times–Union of Jacksonville, published several stories about the 251,570-acre Honey Prairie Fire Complex (as of 21 June, from this story by Terry Dickson), near Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Although news reports are more likely to discuss the number of displaced residents or threats to wildlife, wildfires also threaten irreplaceable archaeological resources. One threat is the fire itself. Another threat comes from attempts to contain the fire. Commonly, firefighters construct firebreaks, which involve removing vegetation—the fuel that sustains the fire. Firebreaks sometimes are cut into the soil, and thus have the potential for damaging archaeological resources.

Obviously, the priority is on fighting fires, but this may conflict with the preservation of archaeological resources. How would you realistically advise firefighters to consider the threat to our irreplaceable archaeological heritage when they are fighting fires? Please login and comment….

The Georgia Forestry Commission has collected online information on Georgia’s fire, including news reports, here.