Wildfires present both threats and opportunities to archaeological research.

Large wildfires in recent decades threatened to destroy important archaeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park. But they also presented an unparalleled research opportunity, and revealed previously undiscovered treasures.

Wildfires are growing larger and more extreme in the Western U.S. Big, hot fires are a legacy of fire suppression policies on public lands, which allowed forests to grow unnaturally thick. They’re also a symptom of a recent, historic drought, which was not only dry but unusually hot — conditions that prime forests to burn. As the climate changes, hot, dry conditions are expected to become increasingly common in the Southwest. That means big, extreme wildfires may become the rule more than the exception. 

A number of wildfires have lit up the Mesa Verde Region since the late 1980s, and Mesa Verde National Park hasn’t escaped their fury. You’ll see the scars of some of these fires as you drive through the park in places like Chapin Mesa, which is studded with the stick-straight skeletons of thousands of dead trees. 

Wildfires aren't bad, per se. They a natural — and vital — ecological phenomenon in Western forests. Whether people consider them "good" or "bad," "natural" or "unnatural," depends on a lot of factors, including where, when and how they burn. In a place like Mesa Verde National Park, they're a concern because of the threat they pose to archaeological resources. But they're also a learning opportunity. Wildfires burn trees and other vegetation, revealing whatever they’ve grown over and obscured — including previously undiscovered infrastructure built by Ancestral Puebloans. 

You can learn more in the Revealed by Fire episode of Mesa Verde Voices. We hear from Shanna Diederichs of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, who used to work as a fire archaeologist at Mesa Verde National Park. Diederichs recounts her first experience on the fire lines, and explains the discoveries that were made after the flames burned out. 

Photos: NPS/Kayla Eiler