Archaelogists are working closely with firefighters to protect ancient Indian sites.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colo. (ap) -- A furious wildfire grew dangerously out of control Monday as it roared through canyons and moved toward the heart of the nation's largest archaeological preserve.
Fire crews fought the 20,000-acre blaze at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado with the help of archaeologists who walked along in front to pinpoint ancient sites that need special protection.
The nearly 500 firefighters toiled in 90-degree temperatures against a blaze that sent flames 200 feet in the air and created plumes of smoke that were visible for miles.
"That smoke plume that you see there is not just a plume going up into the sky. It is extreme energy. This is awesome power that we're looking at," said fire management team spokesman Justin Dombrowski. "If you put somebody in front of those 200-foot flames, they are going to die. If you dump slurry on it, you've just wasted your retardant because there's nothing you can do to slow the fire."
The fire started Thursday after an apparent lightning strike and has since cut a swath 8 miles long and 4 miles wide, fueled by tinder-dry trees and shrubs. No injuries or major structural damage have been reported.
The fire was moving quickly toward the nation's largest archaeological preserve, just 4.5 miles from the ruins known as Cliff Palace, a major park attraction that was built by Pueblo Indians between 600 and 1300 A.D.
The wildfire has uncovered several previously unknown sites, stripping away covering vegetation. But the blaze poses considerable danger as it threatens the ancient ruins.
Archaeologists are marking the sites with color-coded flags that denote new and previously identified sites. After the fire is out, they will survey and research the area.
"We're putting together the pieces of the puzzle of how people who have been gone for hundreds of years live," said National Park Service archaeologist Jane Anderson. "You make your best guess on what you can find and we're finding a lot."
A fire in the 52,000-acre park in 1996 damaged a petroglyph carved into a rock wall by cliff dwellers more than 1,000 years ago.
Across the West, dozens of other wildfires burned out of control. Fires in southern California, Washington, Montana and New Mexico wiped out more than 20,000 acres.
Fires have burned nearly 3 million acres nationwide this season, the largest acreage total since 1996, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.
- On the Net: National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov.
Mesa Verde National Park: www.nps.gov/meve.