| 6 August 2006
Fighting to save Californian prehistoric sites
When wildfires put prehistoric sites at risk, archaeologists work with crews to help protect centuries of California's heritage. As nearby hillsides were covered with orange flames and thick black smoke, two archaeologists stared with wonder at three prehistoric stone grinding tools they had just discovered on the ground. "These artifacts are as well preserved as anything you could ever find," archaeologist Richard Jenkins said as he examined a mortar stone with a perfectly rounded indentation. "This whole settlement is in great shape. It's survived for hundreds of years. Hopefully it will make it through this fire without major damage."
As their colleagues at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were fighting the Canyon fire, Jenkins and Chuck Whatford searched the fire scene in the rugged mountains east of San Jose looking for archaeological sites worth documenting and - if possible - saving. Jenkins and Whatford are two of six CDF archaeologists who document prehistoric and historic sites for firefighters to be aware of when fighting a wildland fire. Ironically, the fire does less damage to the sites than the bulldozers used to stop the advancing flames. Many sites have survived wildfires in decades past with relatively little damage. But when crews build a fire line or carve a road through the brush, they can chew up the ground and dramatically alter a site.
The two scientists are part of a transformation in the interaction between firefighting and archaeology. While the CDF has long worked with scientists, archaeologists have only recently become an integral part of a firefighting team. This is because, in the past, firefighters had little information on the historic significance of many remote sites in threatened forests. That all changed after the 2002 Pines fire in the eastern mountain of San Diego County. Bulldozers used to battle the fire seriously damaged several prehistoric sites. But the fire also exposed some previously unknown sites, including a medium-size village near Mount Laguna with artifacts estimated to be 8,000 years old.
Archaeologists, historians and local tribes saw the fire damage as an opportunity to do more research. "That fire was real turning point for the CDF," Jenkins said. "Since then, we assign one or two archaeologists to every major fire."
Previously, CDF archaeologists did most of their research trying to identify sites worth saving on timberland where logging was planned. Now the research is integrated into the firefighting.
Source: San Francico Chronicle (16 July 2006)
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