Background: Wildfires of uncharacteristic severity, a consequence of climate changes and accumulated fuels, can cause amplified or novel impacts to archaeological resources. The archaeological record includes physical features associated with human activity; these exist within ecological landscapes and provide a unique long-term perspective on human–environment interactions. The potential for fire-caused damage to archaeological materials is of major concern because these resources are irreplaceable and non-renewable, have social or religious significance for living peoples, and are protected by an extensive body of legislation. Although previous studies have modeled ecological burn severity as a function of environmental setting and climate, the fidelity of these variables as predictors of archaeological fire effects has not been evaluated. This study, focused on prehistoric archaeological sites in a fire-prone and archaeologically rich landscape in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, USA, identified the environmental and climate variables that best predict observed fire severity and fire effects to archaeological features and artifacts.
Results: Machine learning models (Random Forest) indicate that topography and variables related to pre-fire weather and fuel condition are important predictors of fire effects and severity at archaeological sites. Fire effects were more likely to be present when fire-season weather was warmer and drier than average and within sites located in sloped, treed settings. Topographic predictors were highly important for distinguishing unburned, moderate, and high site burn severity as classified in post-fire archaeological assessments. High-severity impacts were more likely at archaeological sites with southern orientation or on warmer, steeper, slopes with less accumulated surface moisture, likely associated with lower fuel moistures and high potential for spreading fire.
Conclusions: Models for predicting where and when fires may negatively affect the archaeological record can be used to prioritize fuel treatments, inform fire management plans, and guide post-fire rehabilitation efforts, thus aiding in cultural resource preservation.