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Archaeologists helping crews fight blaze

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MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. — Archaeologists toiled alongside firefighters in a joint effort to rescue both the past and the future of Mesa Verde National Park from flames.

Fire crews are battling a 22,000-acre wildfire that has burned a quarter of the nation's largest archaeological preserve.

The fire's advance was slowed Monday when it ran into two areas denuded by earlier blazes. Afternoon cloud cover, a brief rain and a shift in the wind also helped.

"Finally, a break. This is something we've been looking for for days," said Justin Dombrowski, a spokesman for the team fighting the fire. "We've had very small victories and now this is a big one."

But with dry heat still in the forecast, firefighters at the southwestern Colorado park braced for more trouble Tuesday.

"This fire has the potential to get up and run," said fire safety officer Vern Bentley.

Crews hiked miles to reach roadless canyons and mesas, aided by archaeologists who walked in front of them, pinpointing ancient sites that needed special protection.

"It's awe-inspiring to see the amount of energy produced by this fire," said Mike Frary, a fire behavior analyst trying to help firefighters outwit the flames.

Colorado officials aren't alone in hoping to beat back flames. Wildfires burning in Southern California, Washington, Montana and New Mexico have wiped out tens of thousands of acres.

A pair of lightning-caused fires in northeastern Washington had blackened 13,000 acres by Monday, destroying 30 homes and forcing dozens of evacuations .

California's largest blaze burned nearly 6,300 acres in a remote section of the Sequoia National Forest. Another wildfire ate up 5,500 acres near the Argus Range, while a third burned 1,650 acres near the Cascade Range and a fourth blackened 2,200 acres in Los Padres National Forest.

Near Helena, Mont., a pair of wildfires at Canyon Ferry Lake charred at least 7,000 acres and threatened as many as 100 homes. Several cabins were burned and a number of people were evacuated, said Amy Teegarden, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

Additional manpower poured onto the lines of a 44,000-acre fire burning in the central Idaho backcountry near the Montana state line. Another large blaze burned about 12 miles south of Salmon River.

In New Mexico, a lightning-sparked blaze has burned hundreds of acres of grass, pine needles and trees that have taken root in the ancient lava fields of the El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area.

"There is so much fire activity going on throughout the West, resources are stretched thin and we are not optimistic about the amount of resources we are going to get," said Marilyn Kraus of the Forest Service's Type II Fire Response Team.

Colorado's fire started Thursday after an apparent lightning strike and has cut a swath eight miles long and four miles wide, fueled by tinder-dry trees and shrubs.

No injuries or major structural damage were reported, but the fire was moving just 4 1/2 miles from the ruins known as Cliff Palace, part of a mesa village built by Pueblo Indians between A.D. 600 and 1300.

Archaeologists were marking newly identified sites — now stripped bare of vegetation — with red-and-white tape, a signal to firefighters who cut fire line around the tape.

"We can't even touch it," said Wayne Kills Enemy, 32, a firefighter from Rosebud, S.D., who was working around one of the sites.

On the Net:

Mesa Verde National Park: www.nps.gov/meve

Park fire site: www.fs.fed.us/r2/fire/bircher

National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov