National Park

National Park Service archeologist Ann Stansell surveys the wreckage of the Museum Research Building that housed nearly 1 million historical and cultural documents and artifacts, nearly all of which were destroyed.

Ann Stansell poked at a file-storage box containing what used to be a two-foot-long metate, a curved rock slab used with a pestle to grind acorns and seeds, a vital tool of Native American life in this coastal region, according to the National Parks Traveler

Now the mortar inhabits three boxes on a storeroom shelf, reduced to blackened, irregular chunks ranging roughly in size from a piece of toast to a book. Burned, but not burned up — the fire didn’t pulverize granite.

“It’s not like you’re looking at an artifact. Now you’re looking at pieces,” said Stansell, a National Park Service archaeologist. “We’ll piece it back together.”  

That’s not an option, however, for most of the pea-sized rubble in 70-some boxes on shelves lining this small field research station.

Bits of shell, metal, rock and beads, mixed in with fire debris – that’s mainly what’s left of nearly 1 million artifacts in the Park Service’s collection here: tiny pieces of legacy, life, culture and the history of these mountains that rise alongside the urban buzz of the nation’s second-largest city.

The Woolsey fire took the rest when it galloped across 100,000 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in November, showing no mercy to this Rocky Oats area: Maps and historical photographs, including Hollywood on-location shots, film reels, prehistoric fossils and Chumash Indian objects, plant specimens and park historical records — all now are charcoal crumbs and cinders, melted into a pile of twisted metal that used to be the 1,300-square-foot Museum Research Building that housed the artifacts and archival collection.

Understated, Stansell said, “It’s a big loss for us. What survived is the rocks.”

The Woolsey fire, ripping across swanky Malibu as well, devoured nearly 90% of park service land in the recreation area, a preserve that also includes state parks and other landowners.

Losses included two of 13 mountain lions with tracking collars, and countless smaller wildlife — a recovery specialist described a post-fire moonscape with burned rabbits littering a roadway — along with oak trees, chaparral and plant life. It ruined wildlife monitoring equipment, trashed uncounted sections of the area’s 450 trail miles, and torched 35 park service buildings, some designated as historic.

Three employees lost the park service homes where they lived. Winter rains on the heels of the fire created more havoc by way of rock and mudslides.

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