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Faces Behind The Fires: Archaeologist

Archaeologist Tara Hamilton with a stone cutting tool found in a fire line last summer.
Maggie Mullen
Archaeologist Tara Hamilton with a stone cutting tool found in a fire line last summer.

Every summer, it takes a village to fight wildfires. For this upcoming season, we spoke with all kinds of people that lend a hand, from those on the frontlines, to others working a bit further back from the flames. For the Faces Behind the Fire series, Maggie Mullen talked to an archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service who helps decide what needs be preserved and what can be left to burn.

Outside of fire season, Tara Hamilton's job can sometimes be a bit boring, with things like paperwork and meetings. But right about now, she said, "it's kind of exhilarating."

Hamilton said she's not necessarily on the frontlines.

"A lot of the time you can't even see the flames," she said. "You're just trying to get out there ahead of the emergency basically, and figure out what's there and figure out how to protect it if you need to."

And she doesn't always have to leave her desk. When a fire strikes, she said she'll get a call that sounds something like this:

"'I need to know what cultural resources are in this area cause this is where to fire is headed.'"

Hamilton uses a Geographic Information System, or GIS, to look at detailed maps of the area and get a better idea of what they're dealing with.

"Where are the known sites? What kind of sites are they?" she asked.

That could be anything from early indigenous settlements to evidence of pioneers who migrated here on the Oregon Trail.

"Are they in danger from fire? Those kinds of sites would be like a cabin, anything with organic components, like wood or bone. We have a lot of historic sites that are combustible," said Hamilton.

If she can answer those questions using GIS, Hamilton stays put. But sometimes it's not that easy. Maybe the threatened area hasn't been surveyed yet and no one knows if there are historical artifacts there. When that happens, Hamilton is on the road with a carefully packed bag.

Some of her gear seems pretty straightforward—water, surveys, a shovel, GPS. Then it gets a bit more serious with fire resistant clothing and very specific footwear.

"We have to wear shoes that have the right soles, so they won't burn up and melt out there," said Hamilton.

And if that doesn't sound intense enough, Hamilton said "one of the things that is absolutely required of everyone on the fire line is a fire shelter, just in case you get in a bad situation and can't get out."

Once at the site, bag in hand, she immediately gets to work. She doesn't always know how much time she'll have. It all depends on where and how aggressive the fire is.

Hamilton said they look for clues on the surface of the ground, things like mounds, certain types of vegetation, or a suspicious depression. These could indicate something important underground, anything from an old military site to a long-gone fur trader post.

If she thinks they're standing on a potential site, that area becomes a priority for firefighters.

"No prehistoric sites are ever going to be made again. And we certainly don't know everything that we could know about those time periods. Same with turn of the century mining camps, or a logging railroad from the 1920s," said Hamilton, "that stuff is just not going to be made again."

But wildfires aren't always a bad thing for archaeology. Hamilton says sometimes, instead of destroying artifacts, fire reveals them.

"There are tons of things out there. People lived all over the place, but you might have a foot of pine duff and you can't see what's under that until a fire goes through and burns it up," Hamilton said.

There's no way to know whether this fire season will bring devastation or discovery for an archaeologist like Tara Hamilton, but she said, it will be anything but boring.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2020 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Maggie Mullen is a fifth generation Wyomingite, born and raised in Casper. She is currently a Masters candidate in American Studies and will defend her thesis on female body hair in contemporary American culture this May. Before graduate school, she earned her BA in English and French from the University of Wyoming. Maggie enjoys writing, cooking, her bicycle, swimming in rivers and lakes, and most any dog.
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