Topanga Fire Success Story

by Gerrit Fenenga

November 8, 2005

In spite of the potential destructive nature of fire and fire suppression to cultural resources, it is surprising how many "success stories" can be told regarding cultural resources and CDF fires over the last several years. The CDF Archaeology Program became active in the fire world during the Pines Fire Incident in 2002. Since then, archaeologists have been assigned to many fires around the State and they are now a regular component of the Planning Section and Rehab and Repair Teams on major incidents. One role of archaeologists on fires is to protect cultural resources when possible by providing information and guidance in the planning stages of suppression to protect these from impacts by fire fighting equipment operating ahead of the burn. A second objective is for the archaeologist to monitor known sites for effects of fire and/or suppression activities. A third role is to locate and identify new cultural resources that might have been exposed by vegetation removal from fires or dozer lines, or other activities related to fire suppression. Although we do not make it a policy to systematically or completely survey burned areas in fires for cultural resources, we invariably make new discoveries on every fire by consulting with local residents and surveying constructed fire lines. During the course of the past several years, CDF archaeologists have made a number of important discoveries while on fires. These have included many previously unknown prehistoric camp and village sites of Native Californians. They also have included several significant discoveries of Native American rock art, as well as the remains of a Pleistocene bison on the Yorba Linda Incident in July of 2005.

In the case of the Topanga Fire, approximately 25,000 acres burned in a relatively rugged area along the western margin of the LA Basin. This area was once home to the Ventureno Chumash Indians, and is known to have a large number of identified (and presumably many unidentified) archaeological sites. This area has received a reasonable amount of attention by archaeologists in the past due to the nature of land use and environmental regulations that require archaeological surveys prior to development. Another important factor here is land ownership, with sizable parts of the burned area belonging to California Department of Parks and Recreation and to the National Park Service. These agencies have made some efforts to inventory cultural resources within their jurisdiction. Another large landowner is Boeing Corporation which owns the Rocketdyne Test Facilities that once served in NASA space shuttle testing and other programs. Finally, the proximity of several universities and colleges with active archaeology programs has resulted in many past site discoveries and some excavations in this region.

Two CDF archaeologists were assigned to the Topanga Incident. Linda Sandelin was originally requested and when she realized the extent of the fire and the number of potential cultural resource issues, she requested a second archaeologist and I responded. The records search for this fire ended up being a 39 page double-sided Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of sites listed on it. Many of these were actually located outside the burn, but were close to it. Sites ranged from village sites containing architectural remains, cemeteries, and other features, to small specialized sites associated with resource procurement or ritual activities. Rock shelters containing paintings and engravings are another specialized type of archaeological site occurs in this region, and one of the most famous of these kinds of sites occurs on the Rocketdyne property in the middle of the Topanga burn. This site is at Burro Flats and it is officially recorded as site CA-VEN-151.

The Burro Flats rock paintings are literally among the most famous of any such sites in the world. They were immortalized in Campbell Grant's well known book "The Rock Paintings of the Chumash" published by the University of California Press in 1965. Subsequent work at the site by Dr. Edward Krupp of the Griffith Astronomical Observatory demonstrated this site functioned, at least in part, as an astronomical observatory to prehistoric Native Americans. Specifically, this location was used to observe the winter solstice. On the morning of the winter solstice, the rising sun shines through a pronounced notch located along the margin of a large sandstone formation that outcrops to the south and east of the rockshelter. The light then passes through a second notch situated at the entrance of the rockshelter. A triangle of light then passes up and encounters a painted design consisting of a series of five concentric circles at the western end of the shelter. There also are other images here that have been interpreted as celestial objects including stars and comets.

When news of the Topanga Fire broke out, many archaeologists certainly were alarmed by the possibility that this important site might have been lost, not to mention some of the other known sites in the area. The success in this story involves the fact that both the fire itself and the activities conducted by fire fighters in stopping the blaze did surprisingly little damage to resources known to exist here. A principle factor in preventing damage to archaeological sites lies in the relatively minor amount of dozer work that was used in fire suppression. Most of this fire was fought from existing dirt roads that served as pre-existing fire lines. Typically, there is a strong correlation between the amount of new dozer line that is cut on a fire and the amount of damage done to cultural resources.

Another important element that served to prevent damage to the Burro Flats site is the fact that Rocketdyne is quite aware of the site complex and its significance. The site was considered in a management plan developed in 1973, and set aside for protection at that time. I was astounded to find fresh footprints when I inspected the site while the fire was still burning. Later, Rocketdyne employees informed me that it was one of the first places they checked following the movement of the fire. The policy has been to encourage the growth of vegetation, including poison oak, to deter visitors. Fortunately, fuels were not allowed to build up in front of the rock shelters with paintings. Finally, it should be mentioned that this area has a previous fire history, and this is not the first time that these rock paintings have escaped destruction. There are many similar shelters and cubbyholes in the sandstone outcrops here, and it is possible that other similar sites may not have survived past incidents like the Topanga Fire.