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25 October, 2012


Smokey Valleys above Wenatchee
About a century ago, hellfire stormed the northwest, eating forests and roasting animals and people alike. Rumble-thunder lightning struck parched ground hard, and roaring flame exhaled firestorms whose smoke-clouds dwarfed their rainless thunderhead mom and flung embers with ferocity and intensity that made their lightning-bolt father hang his head. 

Little Smokes in Sagebrush Steppe

A couple of storms (not to mention a road crew and other inattentive humans) did wander into beatle-kill forest this year, sparking fires that did some damage to timber and homes, but nothing on the order of a century ago. Nothing on the order of what could happen, what many people think will happen, when we have a truly long hot summer and the fire crews get stretched too thin. This year, most of the big fires were late in the season in the NW, and some of the fuel is gone to ash, never to burn again. But the planet keeps warming, the trees keep dying and drying, and one of these years the perfect storm (violent and parched as a moonshiner trapped in a dry county) will char the Cascadian east.

I know people who fight these fires, and hadn't really thought I'd be joining them, being about twice the age of the average line fire-fighter, and unable to jump in with advanced skills like meteorology, aircraft maintenance, logistics, GIS, get the point. But as the season wound down this year, someone approached me about maybe doing archaeology on fires. 

Smoke in the Gorge

Huh? Yep, there's a use for an archaeologist when there are fires on the loose. One of the main ways to fight a fire is to bulldoze a fire line, a gouge of bare earth that won't burn. And if you do that through an archaeological site, it's gone. No second chance to analyze that Clovis point in context, or to let that burial rest in peace. 

So what? There's a freaking fire, a lot of people would say, don't worry about some stone chips when lives are at stake. True, especially when the stake is about to flash ignite. But modern fire fighters are not scurrying around the active front, swatting at the flames. They're strategically setting perimeters, sometimes days in advance, and if someone with the right kind of data and eyes trained to see the sites can help that battle line avoid loss of something ancient or otherwise special, why bulldoze blindly?

I'm kinda hoping it will work out. Having not spent a couple of weeks in a tent, waking before dawn and eating camp food before hiking rugged ground in sweltering heat,I can imagine it fuzzily, happily. Doing something new at my age is good, and they wouldn't send an old guy into the maw of a firestorm, I figure.

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