Backstory: A smoke cloud's silver lining

Margaret Hangan was home finishing the Sunday crossword puzzle the night the call came this past July. The urgency in the US Forest Service dispatcher's voice on the other end was unmistakable: Ms. Hangan was going to have to change into her fire clothes, grab the bag of gear and maps she always keeps ready, jump into her pickup, and step on the gas to meet up with the Forest Service Fire Command unit at the edge of the backcountry east of San Diego.

The flames of a wildfire that night were moving fast, too. When she arrived, Hangan learned that bulldozers were already in place in nearby Corral Canyon, poised to carve a firebreak through the rugged terrain. And that's where she needed to be – not as a firefighter saving trees or homes but as a US Forest Service archaeologist saving ancient native American sites from destruction by the firefighters themselves.

With only her headlights to illuminate the way, Hangan could barely make out the dirt road she was bumping along. But she could easily see in the distance the eerie orange glow of what would be called the Horse Fire moving up the far side of a ridge. She already knew the only thing she had any chance of saving was the past.

***

Wildfires regularly scorch swaths of the American West, causing major destruction to nature and property – indeed, since 2001, fires have burned more than 200,000 acres of this 460,000-acre national forest alone. But the fires also create extraordinary opportunities for archaeologists like Hangan. In the burning away of centuries of plant growth, new finds are often exposed.

Fire actually wreaks less havoc on such sites than the bulldozers that firefighters use to stop the advancing flames do. In the past, old villages and ancient resting places have survived wildfires with relatively little damage. When crews clear a fire line, however, they can unknowingly destroy a site.

That's where an archaeologist like Hangan comes in. When she arrived at the Horse Fire with her Global Positioning System and topographical maps, her job was to guide bulldozers away from areas previously identified as archaeologically sensitive. Though firefighters had already started digging their firebreak, she was able to determine from archaeological surveys that it was not a probable site of ruins. The firefighter's main focus, of course, was fighting the wildfire and saving lives and property. But firefighters here are also committed to protecting the history that nature has hidden for centuries, as it had in Corral Canyon.

The 1966 National Historic Preservation Act charges federal agencies with the responsibility of preserving sites of historic and cultural significance, and has led to the creation of staff archaeologists at the National Forest Service. Their role involves surveying forestlands and maintaining working relationships with local firefighters. For safety's sake, Hangan has even received standard training in the basics of firefighting.

So the night the Horse Fire started, Hangan explains, there was already awareness that this area held cultural treasures. And she was able to determine quickly the probable locations of unearthed sites based on visible evidence such as oak groves and riverbeds (all desirable amenities to ancient inhabitants). In its eight-day course over 16,681 acres, the Horse Fire revealed a previously undiscovered 2,000-year-old native American "kitchen" – a bedrock mortar unscathed by the flames.

***

On a recent beautiful, clear day here in the national forest, 45 miles east of San Diego, Hangan makes the same bumpy ride into Corral Canyon that she did five months ago. But its oak trees give no clue as to the season. Branches cast linear, not leafy, shadows on the charred earth. And little is left of the thick undergrowth that blanketed these hillsides.

"Here we are," she says as she rumbles to a stop, eyeing an outcrop of granite rocks glinting in the sun. The next minute she's hiking toward it.

"This was someone's kitchen," she says, perched on a rock in the outcropping. "And this," she smiles, pointing to a deep, smooth indentation in the granite, "was her blender!" Hangan explains how a tribal woman would have used a rock to crush seeds or insects against the larger stone as part of food preparation or preservation, creating over time a gentle hollow. Reflecting on the size and the weight of the rock tool, Hangan notes, "That woman had some major forearms."

The documented archaeological sites that dot the Cleveland National Forest were inhabited by various tribes – such as the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay – throughout the centuries. It was common for native people to migrate within the region to take advantage of seasonal resources. Sites here typically show traces of habitation – pottery, tools, arrowheads – from a period 2,000 years ago to more recent times. But some sites are as old as 10,000 years.

Hangan explains that the early inhabitants of the Cleveland National Forest showed an understanding of the land and their relationship to it that is a marvel of intuition and insight. There's even evidence that early tribes here set fires to help the forest rejuvenate itself.

"And they made use of everything here. Everything." Hangan says, sweeping her arm at the budding yucca and deer grass, both used in basketry.

"This is our history," she says. "This is who we are – as nation, as people. These prehistoric sites, sure, might be primarily associated with the tribes, but still they are about America, about our history, about human history on this landscape. Archaeological sites, especially in California, are vanishing. That's why these on public land are becoming more important. We're preserving history for our grandkids and our grandkids' grandkids."

Walking back to the truck, Hangan looks down, scanning the ground as she usually does when she's on a site (a habit she can't seem to break, she says, laughing, even when she isn't on the job). Today, something catches her eye. Stopping in her tracks, she bends to pick up an arrowhead, whole and chiseled to a perfect point. "I haven't found one of these in years," she says, a note of triumph in her voice. Unearthing fragments of arrowheads isn't unusual for Hangan; stumbling on an intact specimen is.

Some people might be tempted to slip the arrowhead into a pocket, or take it home to show a friend or sell on eBay, where there is a spike in listings of such finds after every wildfire. Instead, she carries it several steps off the path, and with a tender pat, tucks it behind a small rock. It is Margaret Hangan's hope that that's where it will be – tomorrow, next week, and if coming generations are fortunate, on other sunny afternoons millenniums from now.

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