Safeguarding the past: Historic structures are often an uncalculated cost in wildland fires

Kaibab National Forest archaeologist Margaret Hangan explains the significance of a historic cabin to a group of new employees. The cabin is believed to have been built in the 1800s and is possibly associated with the Beale Wagon Road. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

Kaibab National Forest archaeologist Margaret Hangan explains the significance of a historic cabin to a group of new employees. The cabin is believed to have been built in the 1800s and is possibly associated with the Beale Wagon Road. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

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Photo/National Park Service

The 104-year-old Sperry Chalet Complex dormitory burns during the Sprague Fire in Montana's Glacier National Park Aug. 31, 2017. (NPS Photo)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — A dozen wildfires are currently burning in Colorado’s forests, which have displaced families across the state and burned over 150 homes. More fires are burning in California, which now threaten nearly 1,000 homes.

Each year thousands of people are evacuated by wildfires that destroy homes, burn forest resources and in some instances claim lives.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, wildfires cost the public over $2 billion in 2017, but there is a hidden cost to these wildfires that is hard to put a dollar amount on — the loss of historic structures.

In 2017, the Sprague Fire in Glacier National Park burned 16,982 acres and most notably consumed the 104-year-old Sperry Chalet, a beloved National Historic Landmark that was built in 1914 by the Great Northern Railway as part of a series of wilderness chalets to entice people to ride trains to the newly established park.

“It was a gut punch. For the past two hours we had worked hard and felt like we were going to be successful.”

— Glacier National Park firefighter who observed the historic Sperry Chalet burn in the 2017 Sprague Fire

In 2016, the Historic Round Barn burned during the Sonoma County, California wildfires. The barn was built in 1899 as part of a Utopian colony managed by Kanaye Nagasawa, one of the first Japanese immigrants ever to enter the United States.

These structures are just two of hundreds of historic structures threatened and destroyed by wildfires every year.

Kaibab National Forest

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Archaeologist Margaret Hangan explains how studying historic garbage can help date prehistoric and historic sites. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

“I think this is a pot they would have hung over a fire, a bean pot. Dutch ovens aren’t quite as tall. My guess is that they were cooking outdoors the entire time,” said Margaret Hangan, Kaibab National Forest heritage and tribal relations program manager.

Hangan was inspecting the remains of a historic cabin built sometime in the late 1800s near Sitgreaves Mountain.

Hangan and Williams Ranger District Archaeologist Neil Weintraub were leading a group of new employees to the site they believe could be part of the historic Beale Wagon Road expedition.

“I believe that spring is where they camped in 1857 as they were waiting to find the next water source, which was Laws Spring,” Weintraub said to the group. “He talked about water flowing through here and high grasses. These trees weren’t here yet.”

Some argue the Beale Wagon Road, built by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, rivaled the Oregon Trail in its importance for westward migration, stretching 1,240 miles from Arkansas to the Colorado River.

Significant portions of the landscape through which the road winds remain in nearly the same condition as when they were first encountered by Beale, who was chosen by congress to chart the road's course.

Hangan and Weintraub have a unique responsibility to manage the prehistoric and historic resources on the Kaibab, and along with other staff members, protect these resources from wildfires.

“They are really footprints and they are fragile and they are irreplaceable,” Weintraub said. “What we’re trying to do is capture the history of the forest as best we can and learn as much about it before it vanishes.”

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Neil Weintraub clears fire fuels from a historic sweat lodge in Kaibab National Forest July 5. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

The U.S. Forest Service is mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act to evaluate, manage and conserve historic sites that are over 50 years old.

On the Kaibab, that includes prehistoric rock art, pit houses, pottery and lithic scatters, sweat lodges, historic sheep cabins, mining camps, railroad beds, military camps and other historic structures.

“We have 10,000-20,000 years of human history on this landscape,” Hangan said. “Since we have the Grand Canyon in the middle of it, a lot of people were moving back and forth through here. We’ve got a significant amount of sites because of it.”

Weintraub said most of the prehistoric and historic sites on the Kaibab are evidence of the people travelling through the area. He said the area has always been dry and many people followed the drainages in search of water holes.

“That’s the history of the forest, even the modern history with the numerous alignments of Route 66 and the railroad,” he said. “It’s a pretty rugged landscape to make a living in – you’ve got to be moving around using all the wild plant foods that you can, hunting and growing what little you could here.”

Hangan said the forest has been used for many purposes throughout history including copper mining, logging and military uses.

“The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and even the US Forest Service itself are part of this history,” Hangan said. “We developed various facilities and manipulated the landscape starting in 1908, so we’re part of this history as well.”

Preventing losses

Every year, forest employees are confronted with wildland fires that randomly appear on the forests, and Hangan and Weintraub lead the efforts to protect the Kaibab’s cultural and historical resources from the damage.

The best protection is prevention, Weintraub said.

“Whether its prescribed fire or mechanical thinning, those all will help us reduce the likelihood of a fire that we don’t want,” he said. “The best case for us is to see the restoration of the forest.”

Weintraub said high intensity fires are often devastating to historic structures.

“It comes back to monitoring these things at low to moderate intensity (fire) on this landscape,” he said. “If it’s a high intensity fire, we not only worry about the fire, but we have to worry about post-fire erosion.”

In 2000, the Pumpkin Fire burned 15,000 acres, which included the north and east slopes of Kendrick Peak on Kaibab National Forest.

“We had a high intensity fire and nobody foresaw that a year later we would have a four-inch deluge off the top of the mountain,” he said.

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Firefighters burn a protective distance from a historic sweat lodge in Kaibab National Forest. (USFS photo)

Collaborative work

Weintraub said it is a collaborative effort to protect the natural and cultural resources on the Kaibab.

“Resource specialists are a part of that,” he said. “We just determine what the needs are.”

Surveys have been done in many areas to document prehistorical and historical sites, but much of the Kaibab has not yet been surveyed.

“We’ve found many sites because of the fires we’ve taken on, especially the ones we manage long term for forest health purposes,” said Jackie Banks, public information officer for Kaibab National Forest. “We’ve had great success in locating sites because they’ve done a great job training our fire personnel on what to look for and how to report it.”

When firefighters see these sites, they can immediately take measures to prevent a fire from over-running the site. This can include raking away fine fuels, cutting back shrubs and trees, back-burning and even wrapping structures in protective blankets.

“Firefighters are going out ahead of fire spread and finding things we don’t want to have burned up, that have been put on the landscape in the last 100 years,” Weintraub said.

The Kaibab can’t preserve everything and many of these resources will be gone in 50-100 years, but Weintraub said documenting and photographing these sites is important.

“Many of these sites are incredibly important to our Native American tribes that were here long before we were,” he said. “They have concerns because they are the traces of their past. That’s why it’s so important to protect them and leave them in place.”

Weintraub said methods for site analysis are constantly changing and emphasized the need to leave sites undisturbed for the future.

“When we have better methods to study some of these sites, we may not have to do as much excavation that needs to be done to discover the scientific information,” he said.

When a wildfire strikes

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Firefighters wrap a cabin in a protective fire resistant blanket and set sprinklers during the Warm Fire in 2006. (USFS photo)

Weintraub and Hangan are part of firefighting teams that respond to wildland fires across the country. Their expertise with archaeological and historical sites is utilized as forest managers determine the best methods for handling wildfires.

“When it comes to fire there are two major issues — one is dozers, which are a very efficient tool used by firefighters to keep fire contained — yet you are moving heavy dirt so that is obviously a threat,” Hangan said.

A lot of archaeologists spend their time on fires working with the dozer operators, she said.

“The other thing we are looking for are the fire sensitive sites,” she said. “We are looking at cabins and structures, but we also have all of the tribal stuff. So getting out ahead of the fire and strategically looking for those fire sensitive sites is important.”

Weintraub and Hangan spend significant time educating firefighters and forest staff about the cultural and historical resources of the areas.

“Sometimes we get people from off-forest who come here and have no idea about the importance of these sites,” Weintraub said. “They may have grown up collecting arrowheads, many people are doing that and they don’t realize how destructive it is.”

Hangan said most of the firefighters become invested in protecting the resources of the forest.

“They take pride in protecting this stuff, it’s a part of their job,” Hangan said. “They see how important these things are and they really make an effort to do a great job. They educate other firefighters about it because we work so closely with them.”

Department of the Interior efforts

In 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke directed all Department of the Interior bureaus, superintendents and land managers to adopt more aggressive practices to prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques.

Zinke referenced the loss of historic structures in wildfires like Glacier National Park's historic Sperry Chalet lodge.

“Sperry Lodge is a tragic loss to @GlacierNPS and our Nation,” Zinke said on his Twitter account. “My thanks to the fire crews who tried to save her. A sad day for us all.”

Stabilization efforts for the remains of the Sperry Chalet were completed by the National Park Service in the fall of 2017. The building lost its roof and floors in the fire which put the structure at increased risk of destabilization. A crew of 10 flew up to the chalet on Oct. 4 and braced walls, gables, windows and chimneys.

According to Zinke, the National Park Service is allocating $12 million to rebuild the Sperry.

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