On July 24, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) successfully suppressed a fire that threatened two important cultural sites on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. The two sites, one an old village site and the other a pictograph (rock painting), were threatened by a rapidly moving tundra fire ignited by a lightning strike near Coco Creek. Both sites had been conveyed to Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC) through Section 14(h)(1) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which allowed Alaska Native regional corporations to select sites of historical and archaeological significance.
At approximately 3 p.m., Thomas Sparks of the BLM Nome Field Station was contacted by Galena Fire Zone and asked about the significance of the known historical sites as smoke jumpers were in route to the fire. Having worked as BSNC’s Vice President of Land and Resources from 1991-2000, Sparks had been instrumental in establishing BSNC’s 14(h)(1) and he quickly identified the need for fire suppression in the Coco Creek area. BLM’s smoke jumpers and three Fire Boss aircraft suppressed the fire by 5:30 p.m.
On Saturday, July 25, Staff from the BSNC Land Department flew to Coco Creek to inspect the scene of the fire and determine if any damage to the cultural resources there had occurred. They found that the fire had been suppressed, but not before it ran to within 200 meters of the old village site. The pictograph site is located near the fire and was also spared from damage. A fire crew was still on the scene, mopping up hot spots and monitoring the scene for potential flare.
“This site represents an important period in the region’s prehistoric past,” said Ganley. “The pictograph is one of only a few which exist in the whole Inupiat/Inuit area stretching from Unalakleet to Greenland. Had this site been damaged or destroyed by the fire, we would have lost a significant piece of the Bering Strait region’s cultural history.”
The BLM is tasked with protecting archaeological sites from fires occurring on that agency’s land, and decisions on the level of response depend on the significance of the site and the availability fire suppression resources. Gail Schubert, BSNC President and CEO, said, “This is a great example of how BLM and Alaska Native corporations can work together to protect cultural resources that represent the State’s rich cultural past. We have worked cooperatively with BLM for many years on land-related issues and we appreciate the expertise and commitment of their employees in the Anchorage, Fairbanks and Nome offices.”