Archaeology and the Pines Fire

By Sharon A. Waechter
Senior Staff Archaeologist
Far Western Anthropological Research Group 


In the summer of 2002, southern California witnessed one of the largest and most frightening wildfires in recent memory. The Pines Fire eventually would cover nearly 100 square miles of eastern San Diego County, and threaten hundreds of homes in the process.

Fire fighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies saved more than 600 homes and kept the fire from spreading even farther. Unfortunately, many other precious resources - among them trees, animals, and archaeological sites - were damaged or lost.

The Pines Fire began on the afternoon of July 29, when a National Guard helicopter struck a power line near the small town of Julian. Sparks from the power line ignited the dry vegetation below, spreading rapidly through acres of chamise, ceanothus, oaks and conifer forest. The fire burned in a huge crescent from the crest of the Peninsular Ranges, traveling north and south for roughly 40 miles. Crews worked for 25 days to put it out, from July 29 to August 22, when the Pines Fire was finally contained. In the process, they built 825 miles of fire line, clearing vegetation and setting up lines of attack. Much of the line was cut by bulldozers - nearly 50 of them operating at one time, on various parts of the fire.

By the time it was over, the Pines Fire had swept through lands owned or managed by the Forest Service, the BLM, the State Department of Fish & Game, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, private citizens, and two Native American communities -- the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians and the Santa Ysabel Band of Mission Indians -- and the Laguna Mountain Allotment owned by the Lucas family.  

Through a cursory survey of the burn area, and careful review of earlier surveys and records, a team of agency archaeologists (including two from CDF) identified 249 cultural sites within or immediately adjacent to the fire. Another 50 sites lay outside the fire zone, but within the area of bulldozer activity.

These 299 cultural sites include Native American camps and settlements, bedrock milling stations, scatters of stone-tool debris, rock shelters, and rock art - sites representing more than 8,000 years of human occupation. Historic-era homesteads, structures, and trails date mostly from the 1850s or later. The CDF archaeologists would discover that many of these sites had been damaged by bulldozers during the construction of fire lines.

Archaeology and Fire Suppression

A primary mandate of the Department is to fight wildfires and preserve lives and homes. They have responsibility for 33 million acres, most of it private property - nearly one-third of the entire state. CDF fire personnel undergo rigorous training and learn to fight fires very aggressively. While this is good news for property owners, it leaves little opportunity to identify and protect natural and cultural resources ahead of time. Before the Pines Fire, CDF did not have a clear procedure for identifying and protecting archaeological sites during major emergencies like this one -- if such a thing is possible. As a result, many sites were bulldozed. Some of this damage might have been prevented, if CDF had had better procedures in place, and more archaeologists able to implement them.

Whenever a state or federal agency undertakes a routine project that may cause damage to cultural resources, they carry out a records search at the appropriate Information Center (a state clearing house for information on known sites) - in this case, the South Coastal Information Center, housed at San Diego State University. When CDF archaeologists and other staff with archaeological training are available to conduct the records search, they can then help plan the project to avoid cultural sites, whenever possible. During emergencies, however, there may be much less time to do such careful background checks.

This was the case at the time of the Pines Fire. Archaeologists from BLM and the Department of Parks and Recreation had ready access to information for sites on public lands under their management. In contrast, because site records for private lands are housed at the Information Center, CDF does not have such ready access to this information. By the time CDF archaeologists Richard Jenkins and Steve Grantham were dispatched, the fire was contained and rehabilitation had begun. They focused their efforts on the rehab work, and on assessing the damage to sites along the fire lines. Although rehab work is not conducted under the same pressures as emergency fire-suppression efforts, there still are many problems to overcome to identify and protect cultural resources - for example, gaining access from private land owners.

Assessing the Damage

The site damage from the Pines Fire was apparent to many people, including certain members of the local Native American community. Some of these local experts knew specific locations of important cultural sites, and were distressed to find that bulldozers had cut fire lines through them. In some cases these fire lines were built miles ahead of the fire. CDF began a major effort to assess the extent of damage to these and other cultural resources. Within a few weeks of the fire, archaeologists from Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Davis, California (under contract to CDF) were in the field to survey portions of the burn.

The Far Western crew, lead by archaeologist John Berg, inventoried nearly 600 acres within the fire zone, looking for any cultural sites that had not yet been discovered and recorded. They also visited several known sites to assess the damages from burning and fire-suppression activities. The Far Western survey was part of an operation to salvage any usable timber within the fire zone before it was attacked by insects and destroyed. The crew ultimately found and recorded eight previously unknown archaeological sites, and revisited another seven. At the same time, CDF archaeologist Linda Sandelin recorded three sites in an adjacent area of the burn.

The archaeological sites recorded by CDF and Far Western ranged from single, isolated milling features (boulders used for grinding or pounding seeds, acorns, and other foodstuffs) to large, complex villages and camps with many milling stations, stone tools, and pot sherds -- and curious features that the CDF archaeologists have dubbed "Cuyamaca ovals." Historic remains were also found, including a circa-1891 homestead once occupied by the Grand family. Many of these sites showed signs of damage from the fire or from bulldozers trying to stop it.

A New Paradigm

Although the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is about to celebrate its 100th birthday, the agency's cultural resources program is less than 25 years old. During that time, their small but dedicated staff of archaeologists has worked closely with public and private foresters to protect archaeological and historical sites from damage during timber harvests, controlled burns, reforestation and other projects, from one end of the state to the other. This has left them little time to develop a process to deal with emergencies like wildfires.

Now, largely because of the Pines Fire and the many cultural resources damaged by suppression efforts, CDF is beginning to develop such a process. The Department is working to create a better and more responsive system for dealing with cultural resources in emergency situations. This new system, still being developed, is based on increased awareness, cooperation, and access to information.

  • Awareness: One of the positive results of the Pines Fire experience is an increased awareness of, and interest in, cultural resources on the part of CDF units in southern California. At the request of these units, CDF archaeologists Linda Sandelin and Gerrit Fenenga have given a four-hour introductory course on the CDF Archaeology Program at several training sessions in San Diego and San Bernardino, between January and April of 2003. In May, CDF provided the full, four-day archaeological training course in San Diego -- a course that was attended by no fewer than 25 key CDF fire-protection personnel, six local Native Americans, and six staff members from neighboring fire departments. These courses have significantly increased the level of awareness for cultural resources and the procedures that may help to identify and protect them during CDF wildland fires.
  • Cooperation: The new procedures being developed will promote increased cooperation and improved relationships between CDF and its partners with access to cultural resources information. These partners include the regional information centers, the State Office of Historic Preservation, local Native Americans, the Native American Heritage Commission and various state and federal agencies. CDF also will need to develop partnerships to ensure the confidentiality of sensitive information, such as the specific locations of cultural sites.
  • Access to Information: The Pines Fire experience made it clear to CDF archaeologists that they needed a more efficient and effective way of gathering information on known archaeological and historic sites during an emergency. While certain areas of California are covered by a digitized data base of site locations and information, many areas are still not; it may require legislation and funding to develop and maintain an effective data base covering the entire state. The absence of such a data base currently limits CDF's ability to react quickly to protect sites during fire-supression operations. The San Diego Unit is exploring the possibility of partnering with the regional Information Center to complete the data base for all known cultural resources in San Diego County, and to make it available in instantaneous, electronic format. This could become a pilot project to encourage similar efforts in other counties.

Archaeologists at CDF are excited about the potential for new procedures for wildland fire protection, which could increase protection for cultural resources. In the past, CDF staff archaeologists were rarely called out on fires, and had few opportunities to provide cultural resources training to fire-protection staff. The 2003 fire season may well be a major turning-point in CDF's cultural resources program. Thanks to the efforts of a concerned Native American community and the positive response from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, many more of the archaeological and historical sites under CDF protection can be saved. These fragile, irreplaceable resources honor our nation's past -- and will educate its future.