Mesa Verde National Park, Colo. More than a hundred years after cowboys first discovered the native American dwellings in the cliffs of Mesa Verde National Park, a wildfire raging through the area is uncovering more sites and giving archaeologists a better understanding of the people who used to live here.
At least a dozen previously unknown sites have been found as the latest wildfire stripped away concealing vegetation. The blaze doubled in size in 24 hours and had charred 17,000 acres by Sunday evening. It was only 10 percent contained.
"It's a bit of a trade off," said Jane Anderson, a National Park Service archaeologists and project manager of Save America's Treasures, a $3 million, two-year federal and private effort to study the cliff dwellings.
"It's exciting to see the new ruins and get that information, but at the same time, fire can destroy these sites," she said. "Sandstone explodes when it's heated."
No major structural damage had been reported Sunday, but the fire had moved to within 3 miles of the ruins known as Cliff Palace, the park's major attraction, and was burning in Morefield Canyon where there are hundreds of known sites.
A dozen archaeologists were accompanying firefighters to help identify new sites and protect them if possible.
The Mesa Verde fire also was threatening a park campground and had spread into a remote area of the nearby Ute Mountain Ute reservation. The national park was closed indefinitely.
A second fire broke out about 25 miles to the northwest outside the park and quickly spread to 600 acres, forcing the evacuation of 15 homes.
"We're running short on resources," said Deb Koening, spokeswoman at an interagency fire dispatch center in Durango. Firefighters were pulled from the Mesa Verde fire to fight the second blaze.
Wildfires also burned in Southern California -- including a 5,000-acre fire in a remote canyon in Death Valley National Park -- and blackened 70,000 acres in eastern Oregon. The Oregon fire was considered "essentially out," officials said Sunday.
Mesa Verde is the nation's largest archaeological preserve with more than 4,000 identified sites, nearly 400 of which were discovered after a 1996 fire.
Park archaeologists have mapped those sites and are studying how they relate to the cliff dwellings and other structures built when the ancestors of Pueblo Indians popularly known as the Anasazi lived in the area between 550 and 1300 A.D.
"As more sites are added, it becomes clearer as to what happened," said Larry Nordby, an archaeologist at the park. "It allows us to get a snapshot at what the landscape looked like and we hope to expand that over the next several years."
All of the 600 cliff dwellings in the park were built within a 100-year period after 1200 A.D., Nordby said.
Twenty-four American Indian tribes, living mainly in New Mexico and Arizona, claim to be descendants of the people who abandoned the area around 1300 A.D.
For years, scientists believed the 150-room Cliff Palace had been home to hundreds of people. But a closer look over the last few years has revealed that it served as "transitional housing" for only about 25 families, Anderson said.
Only about 25 rooms have hearths for cooking and heating while the rest served as storage or ceremonial areas, Nordby said.
Archaeologists aren't sure why, although one theory holds that Cliff Palace was used for craft fairs where people from throughout the area could trade and share ideas in basket weaving, pottery and hunting, Nordby said.
"Part of the reason we didn't know what this site was used for is that it was excavated in the early 1900s," Nordby said. "They didn't look at things as systematically as we're doing. In addition, there is always room for interpretation."
Archaeologists also are not sure why the area was abandoned.
"Mapping rooms and rethinking how those rooms may have been used helps us best determine the daily routines of the ancestral Puebloans and their community structure," Nordby said. "It may also help us further understand some of the mysteries of Mesa Verde."
On the Net:
Mesa Verde National Park: http://www.nps.gov/meve