A fire burning out of control in Mesa Verde National Park has unearthed hidden ancient Indian artifacts, complicating firefighters’ task of putting out the blaze before it spreads to other areas of the park.
About 350 firefighters battled the flames in a 3,500-acre area of rugged, steep terrain on the eastern boundary of the park, about 260 miles southwest of Denver.
“The conditions have not improved,” said Brian Peterson, spokesman for the National Park Service. “We are hoping for some moisture, a drop in the temperature, anything.”
The wildfire, which spewed wind-whipped flames and sent a gray curtain of smoke into the sky, doubled in size Friday and spread quickly across tinder-dry mesas and canyons, forcing the evacuation of 1,000 tourists.
“Oh, my! It [has] grown,” said Jane Anderson, who works for the park and lives nearby.
The fire has not threatened any of the cliff dwellings and mesa villages built by Pueblo Indians more than 1,000 years ago.
Thirteen park archaeologists traveling with firefighters are protecting and securing the previously undocumented sites and taking an inventory of the find. The group has not yet detailed what items were uncovered.
The mounds of rubble, which are believed to be walls, were exposed when the flames burned away vegetation.
“The archaeologists are very excited,” said Elaine Simo, spokeswoman for the National Park Service.
The fire, apparently caused by lightning, broke out on the eastern boundary of the 52,000-acre park on Thursday. It raced through juniper, pinon and oak brush, burning within a mile of the single road through the area.
National Park Service officials said the park would probably remain off limits to tourists through the weekend.
The canyon walls are so steep that firefighters had difficulty reaching the flames. Officials said the fire was so intense that it was creating powerful updrafts, in effect, making its own weather rather than being pushed by winds.
Centuries after the original cliff dwellers left the Mesa Verde area, Pueblo Indians began filtering into the region to inhabit the dwellings, and referred to the original cliff dwellers as the Anasazi, or Ancient Ones.
Wildfires also burned in Southern California — including a 5,000-acre blaze in a remote canyon in Death Valley National Park — and consumed 70,000 acres in eastern Oregon.
In Southern California, the Death Valley fire started in desert grass and brush in Happy Canyon, north of the small desert community of Trona, said Tom Sensintaffar, manager of a federal interagency communications center. Flames then spread into higher elevations and into the park.
The area’s steep terrain and limited road access mean the fire must be fought primarily from the air, he said. Hundreds of firefighters were on the scene.
No injuries were reported, and the park remained open, spokeswoman Nancy Wizner said. The cause of the blaze was unknown.
Smaller fires burned west of Santa Clarita, east of Temecula, and in Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County.
In Oregon, firefighters contained a 70,000-acre fire that burned near Boardman after gusty winds died down. High temperatures and winds moved the flames quickly through dry grassland in two counties after the blaze broke out late Saturday morning.
The blaze had threatened several had threatened several farm houses and closed a highway in the remote area, but there were no reports of injuries or property damage, officials said. The cause was unknown.
Firefighters were battling three other large fires in northwestern Colorado, at least two of them caused by lightning.
The largest was burning on 1,500 acres about seven miles east of Rangely and threatened two trailers and two cabins. It was 10 percent contained Saturday.
Nearly 56,000 fires have burned 2.8 million acres nationwide this season, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, the worst acreage total since 1996.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.