MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (AP) — 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 had charred 8,000 acres as of Sunday and was only 15 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 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.
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.