Wildfires expose ancient Indian artifacts in the West

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An oak tree was still burning nearby when Margaret Hangan made her way across a wildfire-scorched landscape and spotted to her delight a set of flat-topped granite boulders that served as kitchen counters in an ancient village 2,000 years ago.

In the rocks were manmade oval depressions in which acorns were ground into flour.

"This place was happening," said Hangan, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist. "They had water, food, grass for baskets — everything they needed."

For all the damage they do, wildfires can be a boon to archaeologists, laying bare the traces of long-gone civilizations.

Around the country, government archaeologists often move in to see what has been exposed after the flames have burned away the underbrush; sometimes they accompany firefighters while a blaze is still raging to make sure artifacts are not damaged.

"Fires are a double-edged sword," said Richard Fitzgerald, an archaeologist for California state parks. "They can be very destructive, but after a big fire you can find new sites, even in areas that have been surveyed before."

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