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Arborists tell us that when a wildfire burns through a forested area, the heat releases seeds from evergreens. The seeds fall to the ground, and before long new trees can be found springing up from the ashes. But wildfires can make possible the discovery of history as well.
Take, for instance, a blaze that burned nine houses and nearby underbrush late last month in a Boise, Idaho, subdivision. After the cleanup, what should emerge but an almost half-mile section of the Oregon Trail, a prime route for thousands of pioneers headed west between 1843 and the 1890s. Not that historians didn't know the trail extended through the Idaho capital. In fact, the affected subdivision is named Oregon Trail Heights.
But it took a set of satellite photographs after the fire to reveal parallel depressions in the earth that could only have been made by wagons and people. "Nobody has ever really looked before," Wally Meyer of the Oregon-California Trails Association told reporters. "It didn't pay to check because there was pretty tall sagebrush and growth there." Now that one of the missing links has been found, Meyer and his fellow preservationists feel duty-bound to make sure it isn't lost again. They've won the cooperation of Idaho Power Co., which owns the land, in keeping the ruts from being overgrown and in marking them for the benefit of hikers and other curious persons.