Late one Friday evening in late 2017, I received a text message from an archaeologist working in San Diego County. He said that he needed help covering an emergency monitoring job in Fallbrook and that the work was a repair effort associated with the ongoing Lilac Fire. The fire had been burning for a couple of days, so I was familiar with the disaster. But being relatively new to California and even to wildfires, I had no idea what to expect.
The experience was daunting. Driving through police barricades, around emergency response vehicles and toward scorched earth was not something I had ever done before. “I’m just an archaeologist! What am I doing here?!”, I thought to myself. The area where we worked had been burned a few days prior and no flames or dense smoke remained in the area. What did remain, however, was a thick cover of ash—sometimes up 10 inches deep, on all surfaces. The ash was so thick that it reminded me of walking through snow. Instead of feeling the cold of the snow leach into my socks through my boots; I felt a warmth coming off the cooling ash. The lingering warmth of the ash was…. unsettling.
Monitoring construction after a fire poses some of its own challenges. Ground visibility was nearly non-existent and, as such, monitoring the work proved difficult. The hours were long, and the crews tired. While I put in a long shift in Fallbrook that day, I was certain that the others had been out there for much, much longer.
Though working in these conditions was certainly a memorable experience, seeing the destruction of the disaster itself was more so. I saw abandoned homes, totaled cars, and acres upon acres of torched avocado groves. Everything that those people had made, saved up for, and loved, was gone. What was most striking, however, was the true bravery of police, firefighters, and first responders. These people are heroes and deserve all the praise in the world.
As of today, submittal (8/12/19), four wildfires are listed in CalFire Active Incidents webpage. https://fire.ca.gov/incidents/
Brenton E. Willhite MA, RPA #17233
Archaeologist, PanGIS, Inc.