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NPS Archeology Guide > Cultural Resources and Fire > 8. CR Data for Fire Management

Cultural Resource Data for Fire Management

The goal of cultural resource data collection for wildland fire management purposes is the identification of significant cultural resources that are affected by fire and fire-related activities. The identification of these resources is an outcome of consideration of the risks and benefits from fire to particular classes of cultural resources.

The impact to cultural resources from direct and indirect exposure to fire and fire-related activities may be swift and detrimental. Buildings may burn, cultural landscapes may be destroyed by fire camps or trenching, archeological sites may erode. Fire and fire-related activities, however, may be beneficial. Fire may restore a fire-maintained cultural landscape and encourage growth of vegetation valued by Native American communities, or clear out flammable wood around a historic cabin to create defensible space.

It is the responsibility of the cultural resource staff to ensure that cultural resources that may be affected by planned and unplanned fire events are identified, and that the information is conveyed to the fire management program and the incident manager. Risk assessments are valuable for establishing treatment priorities.

The “resources at risk” concept recognizes that different classes of cultural resources have varying degrees of susceptibility to damage from fire and from fire management activities. Cultural resources at risk contain material components that have a reasonable potential to be damaged or destroyed by a wildland fire or fire response activity. Cultural resources at risk must be considered when planning, implementing, and responding to wildland fires and fire-related activities.

The information may be shared during consultations, but the cultural resource manager in parks, regions, and centers; and park superintendents have responsibilities to ensure that sensitive cultural information is kept secure.

This section in Cultural Resources and Fire discusses information sources and considerations for developing cultural resource information for fire planning purposes. The guidance is intended to assist cultural resource managers in parks, regions, and centers who coordinate with fire program managers to ensure that cultural resources are considered in the planning and implementation of wildland fire activities.

A downloadable checklist for developing cultural resource information for wildland fire planning may be found at Checklist for Developing Cultural Resource Data for Fire Management (.docx).

Compiling Cultural Resource Information

To provide concise and relevant data about significant cultural resources that are vulnerable to fire and fire-related activities—cultural resources at risk—cultural resource managers:

Cultural resources at risk from fire are unique to each park, and identification will depend on the professional judgment of the cultural resource program staff and the management goals of the park. A superintendent of one park may direct the fire management program to consider all cultural resources to be resources at risk and mitigate fire effects accordingly. Another superintendent may consider only certain classes, such as cultural resources above ground, to be cultural resources at risk.

Data from existing sources can identify gaps in information that are addressed through survey or through modeling. Existing sources include:

NPS Centralized Data Bases

Through cultural resource programs required by Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), parks systematically identify, document, and assess cultural resources for significance and eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places (National Register). Cultural resource documentation is compiled in a number of centralized data bases, such as Archeological Sites Management Information System (ASMIS), Cultural Landscape Inventory (CLI) and the List of Classified Structures (LCS).

Historic Context Studies

Documents such as history reports, administrative histories, identification and evaluation studies, National Register documents, and National Historic Landmark theme studies, allow reasonable predictions about the types of cultural resources that are likely to be present in a park or subunit, and provide background information for evaluation of resources for eligibility for the National Register. Historic context studies also assist in identifying groups with an interest or association with the park for consultation.

Other Park Sources

In addition to primary records in various data bases, much park cultural resource information may be found in “gray literature” (unpublished reports). Documents may include final reports for NHPA and NEPA compliance projects, park overviews and assessments, HABS/HAER/HALS documentation, and academic research reports. Information about ethnographic resources may be found in ethnographic overviews and assessments, oral histories, and ethnographic place name studies.

Cultural Resource Survey for Fire-Related Activities

If background research establishes that existing information does not provide a reasonable basis for determining the types and importance of cultural resources likely to be present in the designated area, strategies to correct the deficiencies are developed. Data collection methods are chosen in consultation with the SHPO. The methods that are used to compile the cultural resource information for fire planning purposes will depend on previous research conducted, characteristics of the landscape, and characteristics of the cultural resources. Depending on individual park circumstances, one or more methods may be chosen, including:

Either singly or in combination, these methods address gaps in knowledge about cultural resources in park designated areas.


Consultation with Indian tribes and groups associated with specific parks may provide important information about vulnerable cultural resources of value. Information about sites such as farmsteads and unmarked graves may be obtained more easily through consultation than through survey. Consultation with Indian tribes outside of the NHPA consultation process is required by Executive Order and by DOI and NPS policy, and affords tribal representatives a more private context for discussing sensitive or restricted information.

Field Survey for Fire and Fire-Related Activities

Field survey corrects deficiencies in previous inventories and increases the extent of inventoried land. As soon as a need for a field survey is identified, the cultural resource manager should formulate the project in PMIS for funding. This is particularly important for prescribed burn projects. The Toolbox document Wildland Fire Funding Sources for Cultural Resources (.pdf) provides information about obtaining funds for cultural resource inventory. It may be necessary to include cultural resource professionals with a number of different qualifications on survey teams, including archeologists, landscape architects, and historical architects. Surveys can be multi-purpose; natural resource and wildland fire managers may obtain information about the nature, loading, and distribution of fuels useful for planning purposes, and may support a cultural resource survey that provides them with such information.

One of two survey approaches are generally used, intensive survey or selective survey. Intensive survey aims to locate all potentially significant cultural resources in a given area. In the event of a wildfire, previously unsurveyed areas of proposed ground disturbance, such as fire lines, new access roads, helispots, and fire camps, are intensively surveyed if time permits. Cultural resources vulnerable to fire, such as standing architecture, are thoroughly documented.

A complete survey (100 percent) is required in order to utilize the 2008 NHPA nationwide programmatic agreement that allows an alternative approach to consultation. See NHPA Programmatic Agreements and Fire for more information about the NHPA alternative consultation process. Unless a programmatic agreement stipulates otherwise, a complete survey is required prior to proposed burns.

Ground visibility is likely to be obscured wherever fuel reduction projects are proposed. Even close spacing of transects and visual examination of available ground surface may be inadequate for the identification of cultural resources. It may be appropriate or necessary to employ other methodologies such as metal detectors, shovel tests, or ground penetrating radar. Such methods would be impractical for extensive areas, but they may be useful where potentially important cultural resources are suspected. If the ground cover is unusually thick, it may be more efficient to conduct the survey after the fuel reduction activity has been carried out. The SHPO will require demonstration that no cultural resources that are vulnerable to fire are present before concurring with the deferred survey.

In contrast to intensive survey, which endeavors to identify all cultural resources in a target area, selective, or sampling, survey targets specific areas geographic areas, such as flat terrain or specific classes of cultural resources. Selective survey strategy can be used to determine whether additional survey is needed, or to inventory specific classes of cultural resources. A selective survey may also sample a number of different environments within the APE, to determine whether an intensive survey is needed.

It is important to consider the time required to develop effective sample survey protocols. Are the sampling criteria complex, requiring much time to plan? Who will be carrying out the survey? Can cultural resource specialists easily identify the plots to be surveyed and will they understand the sampling criteria? Time spent in developing and consulting with the SHPO about the sampling strategy must be weighed against the consultation and planning time that is saved by simply conducting an intensive survey. An intensive survey may not be feasible, however, or may take more time than time needed to develop and carry out a sampling survey. Information gained by using various survey strategies must be weighed against time needed to carry out an intensive survey.

Remote Sensing Survey for Fire and Fire-Related Activities

Depending on the nature of cultural resources in a park and individual park circumstances, aerial survey or remote sensing, such as LIDAR, may be a more efficient or cost effective inventory method than field survey. Remote sensing survey may be combined with groundtruthing to inventory backcountry resources that are more visible from the air, or that are found at wide intervals.


Depending on the nature of the survey or of the cultural resources, the results of selective survey may be used for projections, or models, of the distribution of cultural resources within the entire designated unit. Similarly, the results of inventory in an adjacent unit may be used to predict the distribution of cultural resources within the unit of interest. The projections can be used to plan field surveys or used for compliance with Federal cultural resource laws, Executive Order 13175, and policies. The methodology for developing the projections of cultural resource distribution is summarized in wildland fire planning documents.

Documenting Buildings

Buildings over 50 years old (with some exceptions for younger buildings of exceptional cultural significance), are potentially eligible for listing on the National Register. Buildings within the APE 50 years old or older are evaluated for cultural significance and eligibility for listing on the National Register.

Archival Research

If historic context studies or other park resources identify gaps in historical documentation for the park, additional archival or library research may be necessary to identify the full range of cultural resources in the park.

Determining Cultural Resource Significance

After completion of the cultural resource inventory, whether a listing of identified cultural resources or projections of anticipated cultural resources, cultural resources that are important to the park are identified. For NHPA compliance purposes, significant resources, referred to as historic properties, are cultural resources that are listed, eligible to be listed, or potentially eligible to be listed in the National Register. There may be many more cultural resources that are important to a park, however, than this restricted definition. Criteria for recognizing significant cultural resources that should be considered when planning or implementing wildland fire-related activities include:

Identifying Cultural Resources Vulnerable to Fire

Accurate identification of cultural resources that are vulnerable to wildland fire effects is informed by characteristics of the particular resource, characteristics of fire regimes in the park, and probable fire effects. Review of the history of wildfire in the park unit, and assessment of likelihood of unplanned fire in specific areas (as well as consideration of proposed areas for fuel reductions) assist in identification of significant cultural resources that are vulnerable to fire, and that will be considered in fire management planning. Information about past fires may be useful, as well as research that assesses the impact of different types of fires on cultural resources.

Developing a process for identifying and evaluating cultural resources’ vulnerability to fire facilitates the preparation of fire sensitivity and vulnerability maps which, when tied to GIS, are excellent tools for integrating cultural resource planning with fire management planning. It may be most efficient to develop the maps jointly with the park wildland fire management program. The process will identify resources at risk from different fire regimes, as well as cultural resources that benefit from fire.

Effects of Wildland Fire on Cultural Resources

Knowing the potential effects on various materials that constitute cultural resources is critical to managing fire practices in order to control the fire variables that may affect the materials. Detrimental effects on cultural resources can result from contact with some aspect of the fire itself, or from the after-effects of the fire, such as increased erosion, or decreased ground cover. The type of effect, direct or indirect, and the intensity of the effect are two dimensions of wildfire damage that must be considered when developing treatment measures.

“Effect” means a physical change in a resource resulting from a fire or from fire management activities. This includes not only physical features, but the physical environment in which the resource exists. Destroying attributes of the physical environment that contribute to cultural resource concealment are also direct effects and must be taken into consideration in fire management.

Effects of fire may be positive or negative, or both at the same time. Unplanned wild fires and prescribed burns may produce physical conditions that restore, maintain, or contribute to desired values of cultural resources. Desired conditions may constitute management goals and objectives to be achieved through fire management activities. In contrast, adverse effects identify unwanted changes in the cultural resource. A significant body of research has been carried out on the effects of fire on cultural resources that can be drawn on to develop measures for assessing the beneficial and detrimental aspects of direct and indirect effects of fire and fire related activities. More information about accessing research results may be found in the Toolbox resource Fire and Cultural Resources Bibliography (.xls).

Direct Effects

Severity and intensity are two parameters of wildland fire directly determining heat-related impacts to cultural resources. Fire severity refers to the heat pulse directed towards the ground during a fire, and generally describes the effects of fire on vegetation, litter, and soil. Fire severity is usually the most important dimension contributing to direct fire effects on archeological sites.

Fire intensity is a measure of upward heat release, commonly referred to as “fireline intensity,” which equals heat yield per length of fire front per unit of time. Fire intensity is the most important characteristic affecting above-ground aspects of cultural resources, such as structures, pictographs, and rock paintings.

More information about the direct effects of wildland fire may be found in the Toolbox resource Direct Effects of Fire on Cultural Resources (.pdf).

Operational effects are direct effects that are the result of efforts to control or contain a fire. Fire lines, camps, fire roads, the release of fire retardant, and other measures all have potential to impact cultural resources, usually in a negative manner. More information about the operational effects of wildland fire may be found in the Toolbox resource Operational Effects of Fire on Cultural Resources (.pdf).

Indirect Effects

Indirect effects are changes to the environment in which cultural resources are located that have potential to affect the resources. Unlike direct effects, which are usually negative, indirect effects may be positive, negative, or neutral in their impact on cultural resources.

Negative Effects

Negative effects are adverse effects brought about by the fire or fire management activity. Direct negative effects include the effects of heat and smoke. Indirect effects include, but are not limited to, runoff and erosion; tree falls; increased subsurface rodent and insect activity; increased microbial activity; carbon contamination; and looting brought on by increased site visibility.

Positive Effects

Positive effects benefit cultural resources in a specific park. Positive effects can include restoring cultural landscapes, removing dangerous fuel loads around buildings, and removing invasive species that are threatening cultural resources.

No Effects

Conditions of “No effects” refer to the lack of demonstrable or predictable impacts on cultural resources as a result of fire or fire management activities.

Modeling the Effects of Fire and Fire-Related Activities on Cultural Resources

After significant cultural resources for a specific park or area within a park have been identified, the potential effects of fire on types of materials that constitute the cultural resources are assessed. An effective method for evaluating cultural resources is to develop models that consider the vulnerability of different classes of cultural resources to specific types of fire or fire management activities. There are five critical components to this process:

A tabular or matrix approach may be an efficient way to summarize information regarding cultural resources, their known or potential values, the risk to which they may be exposed from fire activity, and treatment measures that will be applied to protect or minimize damage to cultural resources. The Toolbox resource Cultural Resources Matrix (.doc) can be used to predict the effects of fire regimes on cultural resources. These data can then be used to evaluate the risks and benefits that different fire and fire management activities pose to each class of cultural resource. Based on the evaluation, information about significant resources that may be adversely affected by specific fire-related activities can be compiled and used to focus wildland fire management efforts to protect cultural resources. Using these and other relevant criteria to structure the cultural resource matrix, models may be developed to identify cultural resources at risk from a particular fire or fire-related activity.

When No Cultural Resources Are At Risk

In some circumstances, a cultural resource manager may conclude that there are no cultural resources present that are at risk from the effects of fires and fire-related activities. For the purposes of compliance with NEPA and NHPA Section 106, the circumstances are documented in planning documents. These circumstances include instances where:

Protecting Cultural Resources from Wild Fires

Once cultural resources at risk from fire within a delineated area have been identified, any treatment measures for protection of the resources are described in fire protocol documents. The treatment measures chosen reflect the significance of the cultural resource, the level of impact that a fire is likely to have, and the frequency of fires. The process and/or criteria by which the various treatment measures are chosen is part of the cultural resource content of a fire management plan. The consultation schedule or threshold criteria that prompt State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) review of the proposed treatment measures are included.

Overall, there are two classes of protective measures that can be applied toward the safeguarding of cultural resources in a park: exclusionary and non-exclusionary protective measures.

Exclusionary Protective Measures

Exclusionary measures prevent the fire or fire management activity from occurring on or near the cultural resource. Measures include fire lines, sprinkler systems, or intentional burning out the perimeter of the cultural resource site, fire shelters, hand and mechanical fuel removal, and fuel burial. These options are particularly useful when anticipated fire intensity and severity exceed the threshold above which a particular cultural resource attribute is impacted.

Non-Exclusionary Protective Measures

Non-exclusionary tactics make no attempt to exclude fire from a resource of interest, but instead seek to produce fire intensities below that expected to cause resource damage and/or that will not lead to future indirect effects. Common non-exclusionary approaches to resource protection include hand and mechanical fuel load reduction, burning under favorable prescriptions, and removal of vulnerable resources.

Mitigation for Wildland Fire Effects

If it is not possible to protect or prescribe activities that will avoid or lessen the impact of fire and fire management activities, then data recovery is considered to save/protect cultural resource information that would otherwise be lost.

Proposing standard avoidance and treatment measures for cultural resources whenever encountered during a wildland fire may be more practical than efforts to survey the entire park for cultural resources, particularly large parks. Standard treatment measures described in fire management plans include avoidance and resource advisor (READ) notification as first and preferred mitigation. Clear descriptions of mitigation procedures will facilitate the SHPO’s concurrence with fire management plans.

Whenever possible, cultural resource survey required by NHPA Section 110—Federal Agency Historic Preservation Program should identify, document, and evaluate cultural resources well ahead of any fire.

Information about specific exclusionary and non-exclusionary treatment measures may be found in the Toolbox resource Fire and Cultural Resource Bibliography (.xls).

Information about ethnographic resources may be found in ethnographic overviews and assessments, oral histories, and ethnographic place name studies.