MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (AP) — Crews struggling to control a fire that has burned one-third of this sprawling national park headed back to work Wednesday after some much-needed help from the weather.
Favorable winds followed by light rain helped slow the 22,600-acre fire to a crawl Tuesday, stalling it in an area damaged by blazes in 1972 and 1996.
"Things are looking good," said Gene Rogers, a fire behavioral analyst.
The fire has burned about 18,600 acres of the park, the nation's largest archaeological preserve. A thunderstorm with wind gusts of up to 35 mph tested lines cut by some 700 firefighters.
"We don't know what held and what didn't," said Mike Lohrey, incident commander. "I've been in fires where it calms down like this and then lo and behold, Mother Nature has her way about things and then it's off and running again."
None of the park's well-known cliff dwellings or museums were damaged, but archaeologists are worried about destruction of other Anasazi dwellings built on mesas or on steep canyon walls.
"We're going to lose a lot of sites because the vegetation that's been protecting them for years will be gone and the erosion will allow the rain to wash them away," said Julie Bell, a park archaeologist who wept during a news conference.
"I live up there as well as work up there," she said. "As you can tell, I am mentally exhausted."
Bell is among 18 archaeologists who are working side by side firefighters to protect mounds of rocks and rubble — artifacts from ancestral Pueblo Indians, who thrived amid the rugged mesas and canyons between A.D. 600 and 1300.
"We've basically dedicated our adult lives to protecting our national resources," said Larry Wiese, Mesa Verde National Park superintendent. "All of us stand to lose a lot."
Lightning sparked the blaze in the park Thursday, forcing the evacuation of visitors and employees. It moved toward the well-known sites, including the Cliff Palace, earlier this week.
Tens of thousands of acres are burning in other wildfires across the West, including a 9,300-acre lightning-sparked fire in northeastern Washington state that has charred more than 30 structures.
In Montana, a pair of wildfires totaling 13,000 acres were burning near Canyon Ferry Lake east of Helena.
The larger blaze has burned 9,400 acres and forced the evacuations of dozens of families from scattered ranchettes. Two personal-care homes were also cleared, with 20 elderly residents picked up by relatives or taken to motels.
On the Net:
Mesa Verde National Park:www.nps.gov/meve
Park fire site: www.fs.fed.us/r2/fire/bircher
National Interagency Fire: www.nifc.gov