The Coyote Fire: A Success Story

By Sharon A. Waechter
Senior Staff Archaeologist
Far Western Anthropological Research Group
July 2003

It may be hard to believe that anything good can be said about a raging wildfire - especially one that consumed more than 18,000 acres and cost $10 million to extinguish. But for archaeologists from theCalifornia Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), the Coyote Fire was something of a success story. While many people look at a wildfire and see only destruction, these archaeologists are equally interested in what wasn't destroyed - and why. In the case of the Coyote Fire, what wasn't destroyed were 480 fragile archaeological sites in the fire's path. The "why" was careful planning, cooperation, and teamwork.

The Fire

The Coyote wildfire began on a hot, muggy afternoon in July, when dry lightening struck in Coyote Canyon, at the line between Riverside and San Diego counties. It was very windy that day, and the gusts drove the flames rapidly in all directions, through rugged canyons and up steep, brush-covered hills. Four years of severe drought in these and surrounding counties had weakened the trees and left them vulnerable to insect damage. Subsequent infestation by bark beetles killed many of these trees, and left them as dry tinder to feed the fire.

On top of this, the rugged terrain and lack of roads in this sparsely-populated area made it nearly inaccessible. Air tankers fought the fire from above, while engines, bulldozers, and hand crews battled it on the ground; many of the fire fighters had to be shuttled to the line by Blackhawk helicopters. To make matters even worse, the Coyote Fire was only one of several wildfires burning in southern California that summer, and crews and equipment were spread very thin.

Meanwhile, 125 residents in Chihuahua Valley and about 600 campers at the Lost Valley Boy Scout summer camp had to evacuate the area. Also in danger were the communities of Lost Valley and Warner Springs, and the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. Before all was said and done, the fire had destroyed a small number of homes, barns, and ranch outbuildings, as well as several facilities at San Diego State University's Sky Oaks Field Station for biological and environmental research. Several people were injured, and some ranchers lost horses and other livestock.

Archaeologists and Firefighters Working Together

CDF Archaeologists Linda Sandelin (Southern Region) and Richard Jenkins (Northern Region) were assigned to the Coyote Fire on the very first day, to help the Planning Section avoid sensitive prehistoric and historic-era cultural sites as the bulldozers cut fire line to contain the blaze. According to a state-wide database of known archaeological sites, and additional information from the Bureau of Land Management, the California Native American Heritage Commission, and members of the local Indian community, there were some 480 cultural sites within or near the fire perimeter. It would take a great deal of coordination - and a lot of luck - to protect them.

Some of the bulldozer lines were cut well beyond the fire's leading edge, as a back-up in case it jumped the front lines. In these zones of relative safety, the archaeologists were able to survey for cultural sites that had not been recorded before. CDF archaeologists Sandelin and Jenkins were assisted by foresters Chris Waters and Steve Wilson; BLM archaeologist Rolla Queen surveyed portions of the lands administered by that agency. Together they found 11 previously unrecorded sites, including some that were special sacred areas for the local Native American people.

In one case, the archaeologists found three bulldozers within 100 feet of a prehistoric milling station. Once they learned this, the 'dozer operators moved to another nearby trail where no sites had been found. In other places, Sandelin and her colleagues were able to flag the boundaries of the sites, to signal to the ground crews which areas they needed to avoid. This kind of protection is feasible only in areas some distance from the fire, where there is no immediate danger. On the fire line, hand crews and equipment operators have one thing on their minds: contain the fire and protect lives and property. Cultural sites and other resources sometimes must be sacrificed in the process.

A Successful Ending

Despite this, only two of the 11 newly recorded sites showed minor disturbance from the bulldozers, and none of the 'dozers damaged any of the 480-plus sites known from the state-wide database. Even though some prehistoric and historic-era resources were burned over by the fire - something they've probably faced before over hundreds or thousands of years -the cooperation between archaeologists, planning teams, foresters, 'dozer operators, and hand crews made this a success story in the battle to preserve fragile archaeological remains in California.