Canyon Fire

On a Saturday morning in July, 2003, CDF archaeologist Linda Sandelin got a call from her Fresno office. A wildfire had struck western Riverside County, just five miles west of the town of San Jacinto.

Sandelin's first task was to gather any available information on archaeological remains in the area of the fire. She would take this information with her to the scene, where she would share it with Rob Lewin, the Plans Section Chief. Once the team knew the locations of the archaeological sites in the fire area, they could try to avoid damaging them as the heavy equipment cut fire lines to contain the blaze.

In the heat of battle, when the main objective is to put out the fire and protect lives and property, there is precious little time to look ahead for archaeological resources. Instead, Sandelin and her colleagues at CDF, like archaeologists from other state and federal agencies, must rely on information gleaned from earlier archaeological surveys to tell them where such resources are located on the ground. The faster the archaeologists can collect this information and get it to the team, the better their chances are of protecting the sites.

As often happens, though, things didn't go quite that smoothly. Sandelin could not get access to the necessary files until Monday, when the Eastern Information Center (EIC) - the state clearinghouse that maintains these files for Riverside and surrounding counties - would be open. By the time she arrived at the fire later that same day, the bulldozer lines had been cut, and the Fire Suppression Repair team was beginning to focus on their repair operations. Sandelin worked with Frank Spandler, the team supervisor, in planning the repair work to avoid 11 cultural properties that had been identified by the EIC.

Additional information on cultural sites within the fire area came from several other sources. Archaeologist Rolla Queen of the Bureau of Land Management had access to computer files for sites on property administered by that agency, and had surveyed dozer lines and access roads on BLM lands. A representative from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Yvonne Jones, was there to help with any resources or issues on the Soboba Indian Reservation. And Rob Wood of the Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento provided CDF with information on three sacred sites located near the fire. All of these agencies maintain files on the cultural sites within their own lands and, unlike the CDF archaeologist, hadn't had to wait through the weekend to access them.

The Canyon Fire hit an area of Riverside County that has had very little previous archaeological survey; even so, records indicated that there were at least 12 cultural sites within or near the burned area. During her inventory of the dozer lines, Sandelin discovered two previously unrecorded sites: an historic-period rock dam across a creek (Figure 2), and a milling station where plant foods would have been processed (Figure 3). BLM archaeologist Rolla Queen also found a previously unknown site. With the information provided by the archaeologists, the Fire Suppression Repair team was able to plan their repair work so that none of the known sites would be impacted.

In the end, no identified cultural resources were damaged during the Canyon Fire incident. While in this case the system worked, the three-day delay in getting access to the EIC files might well have meant the destruction of irreplaceable cultural sites. This fire provides another example of the need for California to complete a statewide electronic data base of known cultural resource locations so agencies like CDF can gather information quickly enough to protect sites during emergencies. It was only the quick work and dedication of the CDF archaeologist and the repair team that made this a success story.