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Shelter from the fires

Shelter from the fires

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Cliff dwellings protected occupants from elements, archaeologists discover

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - The latest fire at the nation's largest archaeological preserve has given scientists a better understanding of why the cliff dwellings were built and how they survived for hundreds of years.

"That's probably the reason why these sites were built in the alcoves," said park archaeologist Linda Towle. "It provides protection from heat in the summer, cold in the winter, and now, we know, protection from fire."

Firefighters were hoping to capitalize on high humidity Wednesday to make more gains on the fire which has scorched 5,050 acres on Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and park land.

The fire was 53 percent contained Wednesday night. Incident commander Mike Lohrey expected full containment Friday.

"It's looking good, but nobody's letting down their guard," park spokesman Will Morris said.

About 60 firefighters were ferried by helicopter to a remote mesa on land inside the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, where they spent the night camping among scorched trees.

Lohrey warned the ancient Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings and park buildings, including a research center that houses more than 2 million artifacts, could still be threatened if hot spots scattered throughout the canyons flare up.

The latest fire, which burned 1,000 acres of park land, came dangerously close to the cliff dwellings. Pinon, juniper and oak brush burned in the mesas above and in the canyons below but did not enter the cliff dwellings that attract about 650,000 visitors each year, Towle said.

The lightning-caused fire started on reservation land and spread quickly just as the park reopened following a 23,000-acre wildfire that scorched nearly 19,000 acres of park land. Park officials closed the park indefinitely hours after reopening.

Officials are considering partially reopening the park, but plans and a date have not been finalized, said park spokesman Will Morris. Initial plans call for leaving Wetherill Mesa, where the fire burned over several popular cliff dwellings and destroyed a bus pavilion that housed a snack bar, a ranger station and small bookstore, closed.

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