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California and the West

Tongues of Flame Reveal the Past

The Sequoia wildfire leveled forests but also opened spaces previously inaccessible to archeologists. Relics found in the ashes suggest that Native American settlers had a more complex culture than previously thought.


DOME LAND WILDERNESS AREA, Calif. — A serendipitous opportunity created by the summer's devastating fire in the Sequoia National Forest has led to the discovery of hundreds of Native American relics, prompting archeologists to refine the conventional history of Native Americans in Central and Southern California.

Much of the 80,000-acre fire that blew through this rugged stretch of pinyon pines and sagebrush in July and August raged in protected federal wilderness. There, development and mechanized travel are banned, making it more difficult for archeologists to gain access for digs.

During the blaze, however, bulldozers had to build fire roads. Construction of roads is one of the few events that can open these areas to archeologists--and what was a disaster became, for them, a rare opportunity.

So, amid towering flames and thick smoke, archeologists strapped on yellow hard hats and set off on foot in front of the bulldozers. They say their finds in those August days, and in the weeks since, have been astonishing.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 30, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Sequoia fire--In Tuesday's Times, a map of a fire area in the Sequoia National Forest mislabeled two roads: California 178 was mislabeled 17 and California 14 was mislabeled U.S. 39.

On one cliffside, they discovered an elaborate pictograph adorned with stars, a diagram that may depict a celebration of the solstice. In a patch of scorched woods they came upon a full-service kitchen of sorts: a series of grinding areas carved into granite boulders by women preparing pine nut mush for dinner. Dozens of obsidian shards, scattered across patches of white ash, are evidence of widespread travel and trade.

"We weren't expecting to find anything of this magnitude," said Loreen J. Lomax, a U.S. Forest Service archeologist leading the mountain expedition. "This is very significant."

Fire can be a useful archeological tool, experts say. It is not uncommon for flames to clear vegetation obscuring artifacts. Though sites are sometimes destroyed, new finds have been made in the wake of a number of blazes.

Last summer's extensive fires in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado exposed hundreds of archeological sites. A fire in Six Rivers National Forest near Eureka two summers ago led to the discovery of river rocks that were used to extract fibers from fern stalks--an important step in basket weaving, said Ken Wilson, a U.S. Forest Service archeologist and the president of the Society for California Archeology.

But rarely do such finds fill in as many historical gaps as those discovered after the fire that ravaged the Dome Land Wilderness.

"This is an opportunity, especially because a lot of history was written with the present-day cultural bias," Wilson said. "This is about refining history, and there is still so much to learn."

Blaze Burned for a Month

It began with toilet paper.

That's the going theory, anyway--that careless campers somewhere in the Sequoia National Forest, just north of Kernville and about 160 miles north of Los Angeles, were burning toilet paper when they set off an enormous forest fire.

That was in late July, and for about a month, the blaze ate through more than 74,000 acres of pristine wildlife, destroying at least eight homes in the remote Kennedy Meadows community. Dubbed the Manter fire, it was one of the first in what would become the West's worst fire season since 1910.

The fire has changed everything in some areas of the Sequoia National Forest, including parts of the Dome Land Wilderness, a federally protected area in the northwest portion of the forest.

Today, many hills are still black with soot and stripped of life. The monotony is broken only by shoulder-high splinters of dark wood, the remnants of once-proud pines. Even many of the trees that appeared to survive have roots that were destroyed by the heat. They topple regularly; firefighters and scientists working each day to coax the forest back to health call them "widow makers."

Twice in the last month, black bears, apparently famished because of the destruction of their habitat, have broken into buildings in search of food. Both were shot and killed. One still managed to bite a shopkeeper twice on the leg, despite being shot five times, said Dan Petzold, a spokesman for the Burn Area Rehabilitation Team.

A ferocious wind tears relentlessly through flood plains and valleys, with no trees or vegetation to impede it. Officials are bracing for widespread erosion and flash floods. They are making plans for swift evacuation of an elementary school, which they say could be washed out any day.

Some fires are considered beneficial to forests. They can eat away at underbrush, bringing more nutrients to trees. Their heat can help acorns release their seeds, and natural nurseries of oak trees often pop up in the weeks after a blaze.

But not here--not this time. This fire was so hot, and so destructive, that officials estimate the forest will not recover for 300 years.

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