CDF Archaeologists and Wildfires

by Dale Hutchinson and Linda Pollack
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

April 4, 2006

CDF Archaeologists have been assigned to wildland fires for many years yet there are still people within the Department who don't even know that CDF has Archaeologists. This small but mighty award winning team of six archaeologists are assigned to fires not only when Incident Command Teams are assigned but also to smaller fires on or adjacent to tribal lands, on fires where archaeological sites may be impacted, or when the Unit wishes to have an archaeologists' expertise in dealing with any cultural resource issue.

CDF Archaeologists identify and protect fragile, non-renewable archaeological, historical, and other types of cultural resources whenever feasible. When Archaeologists were initially assigned to fires, the concern stemming from Incident Commanders through Fire Fighters was that the Archaeologist would hinder the emergency response operations by not allowing tactics necessary to fight the fire or by placing themselves in danger by not understanding fire behavior. This apprehension was unwarranted. Rob Lewin has worked with CDF Archaeologists on many fires as both Planning Section Chief and Operations Section Chief. He said, "always the results were effective and positive." The CDF Archaeologists are viewed as an asset to the team.

The CDF Archaeology staff are trained as firefighters which allows them to get out on the ground while the fire is still burning. On the Sierra Incident in February 2006, the fire was on lands under the jurisdiction of three different agency archaeologists. Only the CDF Archaeologist was able to field inspect sites during the fire. This was extremely important because two Native American sacred sites were mapped as having been impacted by bulldozers. The local tribes wanted to meet with fire officials to learn what happened and what could be done to repair the damage. Both archaeologists from the other agencies weren't able to provide first hand information, but the CDF Archaeologist was able to get out on the ground and made the determination that neither site was impacted. Meetings were held at each of the local tribal offices and their worries were quickly put to rest. This ability to respond quickly also lessens the time needed during fire suppression repair, as much of the repair work near archaeological sites can be assessed and completed during the initial repair work.

Since most of CDF's work is on privately owned land, the CDF Archaeologist may have little or no information on where known sites are located. Written records and maps for sites in the area may be available, although sometimes these written records may be over 50 years old and not accurately described or mapped. At other times, the Archaeologist must use professional judgment to determine where sites may be located and will get out ahead of the bulldozers to try to locate sites. During the Sierra Incident twenty-two site locations were known and relocated and four additional sites were discovered when the archaeologist was surveying dozer lines, hand lines, and areas of retardant drops. One surprise during this fire was relocating a site that was previously recorded as a small site when in reality it was a fairly large undisturbed village site with over 100 bedrock mortars, a large midden soil area over an acre in size, and hundreds of artifacts. The danger posed to this site was that it was in a prime location to be used for staging. This site was able to be avoided and no damage was done to it. According to Lewin, "It is nice to know that our Department is effectively working to preserve our history."

For the most part archaeological site locations are kept confidential, which means firefighters and dozer operators may inadvertently impact sites that they could have avoided if they had known about them. Having a CDF Archaeologist at the fires enables CDF to get site information disseminated to those in planning and out on the lines in order to protect sites. This may include providing detailed site information, putting a dot on a map without describing in detail any specific information about the site, or maybe just flagging off areas and letting people know to stay away. Our view is that if we teach people about the value of the resources, which includes seeing them first-hand, people will be more interested in protecting them. According to Phil Veneris, "[the] skills as an Incident Archaeologist have proven valuable to me as an Operations Section Chief on Incidents. [The archaeologist] always has a detailed plan to present to the Incident Action Plan and gives a good talk during the Operational Briefing." During the Topanga Fire in 2005, mysterious rock-art paintings graced the cover of one of the IAPs. This brought about a great deal of interest in local Native American culture and how our firefighting staff can protect sites during their suppression efforts.

Off the fires, CDF Archaeologists spend many days each year teaching CDF staff at the Academy and throughout the state about our responsibility to protect sites. When discussing the protection of cultural resources during fires, an IC said, "When you overhear HFEO's and Crew Captains talking passionately about archaeological sites, you know the message is getting delivered!"

On Friday, March 30, 2006, The Society for California Archaeology gave CDF the M.R. Harrington Award for Conservation Archaeology. This award was presented to the Department in recognition of our successful efforts to protect archaeological sites during wild fires. It was specifically given to CDF as a team award recognizing outstanding work by our staff archaeologists, incident commanders, and the entire work force of firefighters that have found a way to incorporate site protection efforts on private lands without hindering or delaying emergency response operations. Director Grijalva accepted the award on behalf of the Department.