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California Wildfires Show Need for Cultural Resource Surveys 

12-09-2015 17:35

Standing in the ashes of the Dyer House at Cuyamaca State Historic Park this time four years ago, I could not believe any fire could be as terrible as the 2003 Cedar Fire. Not only was the Dyer House completely gutted except for its stone walls, it was not listed in the California Register of Historic Resources and therefore not eligible for Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) funds for reconstruction.

The fire disasters in Southern California once again showed the extraordinary need for surveys of cultural resources, especially in remote areas. Along with the other six counties of San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and Ventura that were declared states of emergency by the president, San Diego lost very few historic buildings listed in federal, state, or local registers. However, the loss of hundreds of potentially qualified cultural resources was the worst in the history of San Diego County.

Fire response for the protection of cultural resources was at times heroic. The South Coastal Information Center, in cooperation with Office of Emergency Services (OES) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, through its sophisticated GIS mapping, produced fire maps showing the location of known historic and cultural sites for fire fighting teams. One remarkable feat was the “bombing” of the Montecito Adobe near Ramona with fire retardant chemicals while an inferno raced through the site. The historic building was saved. But other historic resources like the Sikes Adobe and the Old Adobe Schoolhouse were completely gutted.

San Diego county’s preservation organization, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), is to be commended for its valiant efforts on the fire lines, as well as for creating a central website ( where agencies and the public can post information on which historic structures have been lost or saved. SOHO’s site assessments began the first moment roads were opened and continue today as teams traverse off the beaten path to un-surveyed locations.

The California Office of Historic Preservation, along with FEMA, OES, CA Fires, and a host of preservation partners, provided a focused website— Wildfires and Historic Resources (check the link at—as the fires raged through Southern California, to assist disaster responders, local officials, and owners of historic properties affected by this great calamity. In addition, we provided several experts to assist in the post-fire assessment of damaged historic sites, including several archeological sites, for counties, cities, and tribes. Efforts to mitigate potential harm to archeological sites continue as the rain season approaches. The Office of Historic Preservation will now be focusing on assessing the damage, accounting for the response to the fires, and providing guidance for the future.

Protection of the life and safety of others in a disaster always comes first. But it was clear that when fire fighters were informed of the need to save a historic structure, they responded in remarkable ways.

Now is the time to undertake the task of statewide surveys, GIS mapping, and protection criteria for cultural resources in high fire hazard severity zones. The need for a greater inventory base of historic and cultural resources, with full and immediate GIS capabilities, cannot be overstated.

Fires are finite. The need for current, accurate information about historic resources is ongoing.

Publication Date: January/February 2008

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Author(s):Milford Wayne Donaldson

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