By Brian Newsome
Herald Staff Writer
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK – The 2,600-acre Long Mesa Fire raged through the heart of the nation’s largest archaeological park Tuesday, sparing precious ancient sites but ravaging the park’s headquarters.
The lightning-caused fire grew 1,200 acres by Tuesday afternoon. It began in a remote area of the park known as Spruce Canyon, and was 0 percent contained as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, according to the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, a five-state multi-agency dispatch center that allocates federal resources for wildland fires.
Three residences and three commercial structures were destroyed in the southern area of the park, known as the headquarters complex, the center reported.
More than 100 firefighters, under the management of the federal Type II Rocky Mountain Team B, defended archaeological sites from the fire, none of which appeared to have been damaged. Four helicopters and five air tankers dropped water and slurry on the blaze.
A million-gallon water storage tank was damaged Tuesday by the Long Mesa Fire. The tank supplies water to the southern part of the park. It supplied about 400,000 gallons of water for firefighting efforts before becoming clogged and being shut down.
Chapin Mesa, where the fire is burning, is home to three of the park’s four most famous cliff dwellings, hundreds of smaller archaeological sites, employee housing, park offices, a visitor’s center and museum. The Pony and Bircher fires that burned 21,000 acres of the park in 2000 formed natural fire breaks on its east and west flanks.
"The area where the fire is at now is in between (the 2000 fires)," said Tim Oliverius, who worked as the park’s fire management officer from 1990 to 2000 and now specializes in post-fire rehabilitation efforts.
The park was closed to all media, with only fire officials and a small number of park employees allowed past the entrance.
The fire burned atop the mesa that contains Spruce Tree House, the park’s third-largest cliff dwelling and probably the most visited, but did not damage the alcove dwelling.
Though archaeological sites were spared, at least for the time being, some of the 70 structures in the southern part of the park – including offices, employee housing, the museum and maintenance structures – were not so fortunate. A duplex, home to four park employees, an unoccupied single-family home and a sewer-treatment plant were destroyed.
Additionally, three commercial structures were reported to be destroyed near the coordination center, but the structures could not be located nor their losses confirmed.
Smoke from the Long Mesa Fire fills the sky for Tuesday’s sunset.
"This is a huge impact visitor-wise because this is where people like to go," said Justin Dombrowski, a fire information officer.
A million-gallon water tank was severely damaged when its wooden roof caught fire – collapsing into the non-combustible tank. The water, which supplies the southern part of the park, was contaminated. It supplied about 400,000 gallons of water for firefighting efforts before becoming clogged and being shut down.
With downed power lines, the treatment plant destroyed and water tank damaged, park officials have the task of restoring infrastructure before reopening the park, something they have not faced in previous fires. Officials said they would open the park as soon as possible, but they declined to estimate when that might be.
"It’s our worst nightmare," Oliverius said about the location of the fire.
Most of the park’s operations are conducted in the headquarters area where many park employees live. It is also home to the park’s museum, research center and Spruce Tree House.
"Heroic" efforts by local firefighters and years of fire-prevention measures helped save most of the structures, Oliverius said.
The Long Mesa Fire burned near these unidentified ruins Tuesday.
Monday night, firefighters were cut off by the fire – the park has only one road in and out – and took refuge in a 12-acre safe zone, an area cleared of potential fuels, that was completed only three weeks ago.
In June 1993, the park implemented a plan to thin trees around structures and archaeological sites. Had that not been done, Oliverius said, it would have been too dangerous to let firefigthers in to defend the structures they saved.
By Tuesday morning, the fire had completely surrounded the developed area of the park, but no additional structures appeared to be threatened, Oliverius said.
Tuesday afternoon, the fire moved northeast, backing up to the sites of the 2000 Bircher Fire and 1996 Chapin 5 Fire. It also moved south, just one mile north of Cliff Palace and two miles north of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, which borders the park.
Kee Jones, 61, a park employee who was evacuated Monday afternoon, said the area was black and smoldering when he returned to retrieve clothes Tuesday.
"The airplane sprayed that red stuff all over my pickup," he said, referring to the fire retardant dropped by air tankers.
Jones said anxiety kept him from sleeping much Monday night.
"The area is all different now," he said, adding that his residence smelled like smoke. "When I started work in 1988 it was a pretty area."
In contrast, Gloria Sevigny, also an evacuated employee, said "there’s still a lot of beauty up there."
"Initially, you’ll smell it and feel it, but you’ll still have that awesome beauty," she said.
Sevigny, who began in the park last October, said fire officials had impressed upon employees the possibilities of fire and what to do.
"They’ve been anticipating when fire will occur, not if the fire will occur," she said. Employees were notified by radio, and procedures for the evacuation, laid out in the park’s fire plan, were executed smoothly, she said. Sevigny grabbed files, photos and her cat before leaving.
Marta Peterson, assistant to the park’s superintendent, said officials had braced for the possibility of such a fire because of the park’s history, the drought and the dryness this summer, and they were well prepared.
"We had thought this out," she said.
Hundreds of visitors were evacuated smoothly, in part, because of the effective fire plan, she said. Buses, for example, have taken people to and from Cliff Palace, the park’s largest dwelling, instead of cars. In addition, some areas of the park had been closed to keep people from becoming too scattered.
Peterson was among those evacuated. It was the third time in her 4˝-year career at the park.
"Each time, even though you’re prepared, it comes as a bit of a surprise," she said.
Peterson said the constant threat of fire is not discouraging, but each time she’s evacuated it’s emotional.
"I live here. It’s where I work, it’s America’s treasures," she said.
Archaeological sites likely would not be destroyed, Peterson said. The sites aren’t very exposed to fuels, with some of them sitting in the ground and others tucked away in the cliffs. Previous fires have failed to destroy archaeological sites, she noted.
"If you think about it, through time, how many fires have come through this area?" Peterson asked.
Oliverius said the fire may be misnamed because it’s possible it didn’t start on Long Mesa.
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