Archaeologists work side by side with firefighters, trying to preserve historic sites at Yellowstone National Park that have been threatened not only by fire but by the bulldozers sent in to halt them.
Officials say they may never know just how many sites of old Indian settlements and traces of early white explorers have succumbed to the flames that have devastated nearly half the oldest national park."The problem in Yellowstone is that very, very little of the park has had an intense archaeological survey," said Sonya Capek, a park cultural resource specialist.
Lack of funds has prevented archaeologists from studying more than 1 percent of the huge park closely, said Capek. She said only 5 percent to 10 percent of the park has had any kind of archaeological survey, even a windshield review from someone in a vehicle.
The fires have burned mainly in thick, back-country stands of lodgepole pine, and Capek and other officials believe there probably were not many archaeological sites destroyed in those areas. Still, they're not sure.
"Whether we've lost things that we don't know about, we just don't know," said Capek.
As thousands of firefighters battled the flames in the park this summer, each command organization for a major fire has had a field archaeologist, who can advise on what historically significant sites are threatened and warn firefighters where not to dig fire lines.
"That archaeologist may say, `You shouldn't put a line here, or you don't want to put a 'dozer line there,' " said Capek.
This week, Capek worked to mark one known site that is still threatened, a cluster of a type of Indian hut known as a wickiup located in an area of the park where fires are still relatively active. The cone-shaped dwellings date back more than a century.
She planted metal spikes into the ground that will show future researchers where the huts are, even if everything above ground is later burned away.
"The fire hasn't hit them yet, but there's a good chance they may," she said. "That's a resource that very well could be lost in fire activity, but they (the wickiups) have been recorded."
At one point this summer, another cluster of wickiups in the northwestern corner of Yellowstone was threatened. "But the plans people (firefighting strategists) were ready to protect them," Capek said.
As the fire approached the dwellings, she notified the fire command of their existence and precautions were taken.
In many cases, archaeologists will have to wait until the fires abate before they can learn what happened to historical sites.
For example, Timothy Mann, a park naturalist and historian, said he could not say whether the flames had claimed trees that early park explorers initialed, or ones bearing rope burns made when U.S. Army troops chased Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe in 1877, winching their wagons down a steep slope.
Paradoxically, the fires can be beneficial to archaeologists in one way, in burning away thick undergrowth that hides "lithic scatters" - arrowheads, primitive stone tools and spear points in the ground that would not be damaged by fire, Capek said.