When wildfires put prehistoric sites at risk, archaeologists work with crews to help protect centuries of California's heritage

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Patterson , Stanislaus County -- As nearby hillsides were covered with orange flames and thick black smoke, two archaeologists stared with wonder -- not up at the raging forest fire but down at three prehistoric stone grinding tools they had just discovered on the ground.

"Look at these artifacts -- they are as well preserved as anything you could ever find," archaeologist Richard Jenkins said as he examined a mortar stone with a perfectly rounded indentation. "This whole settlement is in great shape. It's survived for hundreds of years. Hopefully it will make it through this fire without major damage."

As about 2,000 of their colleagues at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were fighting the Canyon fire all last week, Jenkins and Chuck Whatford searched the fire scene in the rugged mountains east of San Jose looking for archaeological sites worth documenting and -- if possible -- saving.

Jenkins and Whatford are two of six CDF archaeologists who document prehistoric and historic sites for firefighters to be aware of when fighting a wildland fire. On Friday, they used pink tape to warn their colleagues about three archaeological sites that were directly in the path of the Canyon fire.

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