Protecting Cliff Dwellings from Wildfire

Crew in front of wrapped cliff dwelling
Resource staff and fire crew in front of the Lower Cliff Dwelling

(NPS Photo)

The two Salado cliff dwellings found at Tonto National Monument display the connection between the Salado and their environment. They constructed the dwellings over 700 years ago using local wood, including ponderosa pine, juniper, saguaro ribs, and many other southwestern species. In the summer of 2019, the impending wild Woodbury Fire in the nearby Superstition Wilderness threatened the preserved wood found in these ancient structures. Protecting these cliff dwellings from the fire was a major priority for Tonto National Monument. The Integrated Resources staff decided to cover the cliff dwellings in a fire resistant aluminized structure wrap to shield the prehistoric wood, and preserve the dwellings as a whole.

On June 19 and 20, 2019, Tonto National Monument staff led a crew on a mission to wrap the cliff dwellings. This crew included Tonto National Forest Fire staff, Capstone Fire & Safety Management, Casa Grande Fire Department, and Arizona Fire and Medical Authority. So, how do you wrap a cliff dwelling without negatively impacting 700+ year old wood?

Preservation of the dwellings started by removing nearby vegetation and other wooden fuels, and then attaching the fire resistant wrap without stapling directing into the prehistoric wood. Fire was introduced into the park on June 21, 2019, and due to the efforts of the fire crews and resource staff, both cliff dwellings were unharmed. Once the fire was no longer a threat, the wrap was carefully removed.

This historic achievement for Tonto National Monument was the first time in park history that the dwellings were protected from wildfire. With teamwork, problem solving, and a passion for preservation, the cliff dwellings remain unscathed. The crew who wrapped the cliff dwelling truly exemplified the mission of the National Park Service by preserving the nation’s treasures for future generations.


How to Wrap a Cliff Dwelling 101

Cliff Dwelling roof wrapped
Cliff dwelling roof in fire resistant wrap

(NPS Photo/M.Monahan)

Roofs: One by two inch wooden planks were hung from prehistoric support beams using paracord. Then aluminized structure wrap was stapled to the planks. The wrap enclosed the feature in a tent-like fashion and was weighted to the ground using non-structural stone.

cliff dwelling door wrapped to prepare for wildfire
Cliff dwelling door prepared for wildfire

(NPS Photo/M.Monahan)

Doorframe lintels: Two techniques were used to wrap doorframe lintels. The first involved encasing the lintels with the wrap and securing it into place with paracord. The second technique was similar, but instead involved placing non-structural stone above the lintels on top of the wrap.

Cliff Dwelling being wrapped to prepare for wildfire
Cliff dwelling roof beam wrapped by crew

(NPS Photo/M.Monahan)

Support beams: Support beams were covered with the wrap and held in place by paracord.

Crew wrapping modern wood in cliff dwelling
Crew wraps modern wood in the cliff dwelling

(NPS Photo/M.Monahan)

Modern wood: In both dwellings, there are many instances of historic stabilization work completed by the National Park Service which used wood. As this wood is not a contributing factor to the integrity of the cliff dwellings, the wrap was stapled directly to the beams.
Written by National Park Service employees Stephanie Mack and Macie Monahan

Last updated: September 28, 2019

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