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Treasures found in wake of wildfires

Allison Hoffman
Denis Poroy/AP photo .S. Forest Service archaeologist Margaret Hangan tours a burnt historical site in the Cleveland National Forest in eastern San Diego County.
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DESCANSO, Calif. ” Margaret Hangan finds history in ashes.

As a Forest Service archaeologist, she scours the smoldering moonscapes left by wildfires for signs of long-gone civilizations.

After the Horse Fire burned through forest land just east of San Diego last summer, Hangan found flat-topped granite boulders that 2,000 years ago were part of a Kumeyaay tribe village.

As she worked, an oak tree still burned nearby, its solid trunk a living ember.

“This place was happening,” Hangan said of the village. “They had water, food, grass for baskets ” everything they needed.”

Forest Service archaeologists have found more than 318,000 historic sites in federal parkland. Thousands more have been unearthed by workers in state parks.

Still, the search goes on, with experts in fire-prone areas from California to Arkansas often relying on wildfires to clear dense underbrush and reveal the remnants of villages and campgrounds.

“Fires are a double-edged sword,” said Richard Fitzgerald, an archaeologist for California state parks. “They can be very destructive, but after a big fire you can find new sites, even in areas that have been surveyed before.”

During the gargantuan Day Fire that burned for nearly a month in Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles, fire crews found an abandoned gold mining camp and an adobe homestead from the 1800s.

After the fire was fully contained Oct. 2, archaeologists prepared to conduct a wide survey, including an area where teams discovered 10 sites after a smaller fire in June. Among other things, they found a cave with rock art and a site with unusual beads made from freshwater shells.

“The Day Fire was a much more intense fire, so it will be interesting to see what we find,” said Patricia Likins, an archaeologist assigned to Los Padres National Forest.

Federal and state agencies said the majority of historic site discoveries are made after fires. David Jurney, an archaeologist in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest in Arkansas, estimated his teams make four times as many finds during post-fire surveys than they do digging through overgrown stretches of forest.

Most finds are small, yielding thumbnail-sized scatters of rock flakes left behind by hunters sharpening arrowheads or piles of rich brown earth, called midden, that remain from prehistoric kitchen scraps.

In rare instances, fires unveil large structures. Archaeologists discovered fortress-like stone walls after the 2003 Cedar Fire ravaged Cuyamaca State Park northeast of San Diego.

During fires, archaeologists sometimes move with firefighters to help prevent damage to already recorded sites. Bulldozers are often directed to work around settlements, and helicopter pilots are warned against dropping fire retardant on rocks decorated with delicate pictographs.

“The No. 1 goal is to put the fire out, but there’s flexibility in how that’s done,” said Paul Claeyssens, a Forest Service archaeologist in Oregon.

Fire crews working near existing sites can also set controlled backfires that burn at lower temperatures than wild blazes that can get so hot that rocks simply explode, obliterating any possible traces of past civilizations.

After the Horse Fire, Hangan was relieved to find the boulders in the ancient Kumeyaay village intact. The granite stones were pocked with “bedrock mortars,” man-made oval depressions once used for grinding seeds or meal from acorns gathered in the forest.

“Someone really loved these rocks,” Hangan said.

Because many sites contain Indian artifacts or burial grounds, trained tribe members often join professional archaeologists for post-fire hunts.

Frank Brown, a Kumeyaay cultural expert and firefighter, said the discoveries after the Horse Fire were important to tribe members.

“We found five or six new sites that had never been recorded by anybody that are really significant to the Kumeyaay,” Brown said.

After fires reveal artifacts, archaeologists must protect them from potential looters.

Hangan noted an uptick in prehistoric relics ” pottery, lithic flakes, arrowheads ” being sold on the Internet after the Cedar Fire, even though removing such artifacts from public property is prohibited under federal law.

Often, archaeologists recommend closing burn areas to the public until new grass and chaparral begin to screen exposed sites from casual view.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Hangan said. “The public has a right to see what belongs to it, but we have to protect it, too.”

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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