Mesa Verde fire may be contained soon

Friday, July 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. – As Colorado Gov. Bill Owens toured charred forests by helicopter and promised state aid to nearby Cortez, fire officials expressed confidence that the still-raging blaze would be contained within days.

Fire has destroyed more than 23,000 acres in and around Mesa Verde, known for its elaborate cliff dwellings that ancient Anasazi natives inhabited more than 700 years ago.

Two firefighters were injured battling flames Wednesday, spokesman Don Cosby said. Their injuries were unknown but are not believed to be life-threatening, Mr. Cosby said.

"The fire is not dead, but we've got a lot of line around it, and we're feeling pretty good about controlling it," said Bobby Kitchens, a fire team spokesman. "I think the big structures, the big historical sites, are out of danger."

Although the air remains hot and dry – perfect conditions for flare-ups – officials are now worrying about the fire's likely collateral damage and future effects. These include ash slides, erosion, damage to archaeological sites and economic woes on a region that relies heavily on tourism.

Almost 40 percent of Mesa Verde's thick juniper and piñon forests are already destroyed, park superintendent Larry Wiese said.

"If we have a major rain event, the [archaeological] sites in the canyons could get seriously damaged," he said. "It's going to be a struggle for our people. We can't protect everything."

The governor asked Mr. Wiese why heavy machinery was not sent to the fire's frontier immediately after it began July 20. Bulldozers and hand crews could have cleared a line in front of it, he suggested.

Mr. Wiese said such an operation would have been extremely dangerous and probably futile, given that winds would have whipped flames over the clearing and again into vegetation.

"I don't care if we lose every building, every resource – we can't replace the life of a firefighter," Mr. Wiese said.

The fire's perimeter was advancing in only a few areas Thursday, officials said. But more than 800 fire personnel from throughout the United States remained stationed at the park's northern border. Waves of helicopters and planes continued to drop water and slurry on the fire's edges and hot spots throughout the afternoon.

After observing the damage, Mr. Owens described Mesa Verde as a "major disaster."

"When you look at an area the size of Boulder being burned, it's a really serious situation," he said.

This and other smaller fires during the 1990s are also affecting local business. Since the park is closed to tourists, many have already left for home or other sightseeing spots, Cortez Mayor Joe Keck said.