Fire Stories

Fire stories from the national parks highlight events, incidents, and the like, associated with fire and fuels management, as well as fire education, technology, partnerships, and more. Stories highlight work related to Department of the Interior initiatives as well as local and regional initiatives.

Figure 1—Backing fire in grassland fuels at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Fire Management and Cultural Resources Collaborate on Research Project

Midwest Region

Today, park managers must routinely balance the restoration needs of natural resources with the preservation of cultural resources. The use of prescribed fire in National Park units has the potential to conflict with goals to preserve archeological and other cultural resources. Four years ago, archeologists from the Midwest Archeological Center (MWAC) and fire managers from the Midwest Region (MWR) initiated a research project to provide park managers with scientific data on fire effects to archeological resources within multiple distinct ecosystems throughout the region. In 2005, following a pilot study at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, North Dakota, funding was obtained from the Joint Fire Sciences Program (JFSP) to expand the study to six additional parks in the MWR. These included Buffalo National River and Pea Ridge National Military Park, Arkansas; Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa; Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas; Voyagers National Park, Minnesota; and Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. These parks were chosen to reflect a range of vegetation types, fuel complexes, and archeological resources.

Figure 2—Midwest Region research team conducting experiments at Wind Cave National Park.

The study was designed to examine (1) temperature and duration of fires, (2) impacts on both prehistoric and historic archeological resources, and (3) alternatives for mitigating the impairment of the archeological record. Research plots were established in sets of three at two locations in each park unit. A variety of de-accessioned artifacts and replica items were placed in each plot. Pre-burn analysis of the artifacts included photographs and a description of its pre-burn condition. Fire was applied using one of three ignition techniques-head, flanking, and backing (Figure 1). Flame length and rate of spread were visually estimated while temperature data were collected with eight channel thermocouple dataloggers (Figure 2).

Post-burn analysis of the artifacts was conducted using similar methods that were used during the pre-burn analysis. Impacts such as cracking, charring, sooting, combustive residue, fracture, scorching, and melting were recorded for artifacts where changes occurred during the prescribed fire experiments. The post-burn analysis created a comparative data set to demonstrate the amount and types of changes that were introduced to artifacts during a prescribed fire.

Figure 3—Post-burn condition of a bison bone fragment. All photos courtesy of the Midwest Archeological Center.

Results from the experimental burns have shown that a majority of artifacts subjected to prescribed fire did not exhibit any significant impacts. The adherence of combustive residue to artifacts was the most frequent impact observed (Figure 3). Significant impacts to artifacts such as scorching, fracturing, cracking, spalling, or melting were typically observed on less than 10% of artifacts subjected to prescribed fire. However, experimental plots with higher fuel loads or longer fire residence times did increase the occurrence of these impacts, particularly on perishable materials such as bone, shell, leather, and wood, and soft metals such as lead. The majorities of impacts observed following the burn experiments are reversible, did not destabilize the objects, did not lead to a loss of information potential, and did not completely consume the object.

This research project could not have been completed without the effective collaboration between the NPS Fire and Archeology programs. The Joint Fire Science Program research project facilitated the first integrated research effort between the Fire and Archeology programs in the MWR. The collaborative effort that was necessary for the successful completion of this research also led to a better understanding of broader program goals and how fire and archeology staff can work together to achieve effective fire application and preservation of archeological resources. Continued dialogue and collaboration will strengthen both the Archeology and Fire programs and will help meet the needs of NPS units throughout the Midwest Region.

To download a summary report and access additional information please visit the Midwest Archeological Center or Joint Fire Science Program project websites. More information is also available on the NPS Archeology Program website.

Contact: Jay Sturdevant, Midwest Archeological Center, Lincoln, Nebraska
Phone: (402) 437-5392 ext. 124