Afterward, on Byers' next visit to his parents' New Mexico home, the telltale signs of a fire scar jumped out from the familiar piece of petrified wood.
A fire-wounded tree valiantly tries to heal itself. The surviving wood hugs the fire scar, growing back over the raw, burned inner wood. The healing curls of wood leave a unique pattern of growth rays as they stretch around the trunk.
Byers' petrified wood had the healing curls. When the piece was cut and polished, he could also see a light-colored band dividing the pre- and post-fire growth, a mark that is also found in modern trees, as well as the unique growth-ray pattern.
With networking and cold calls, Byers put together a dream team that could help him polish his findings and publish the results in a scientific journal. The study will appear Oct. 1 in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. His collaborators include the University of New Mexico's Sidney Ash, who may have looked at more petrified wood from the Southwest than anyone else on Earth; Dan Chaney, an expert on ancient plants at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; and Lucía DeSoto, a professor at Portugal's University of Coimbra and a leader in analyzing tree growth, cell by cell.