Fires Devastate San Diego County's Historic Sites
By Bruce Coons
Adobe Schoolhouse earlier in 2007
Built in 1882 and restored by Henry Fenton in the 1940's, the schoolhouse received national fame when Life Magazine covered it in 1944. Owned by the City of San Diego, it was already on SOHO's Most Endangered List when it was burned by the fire. It is still restorable and the City needs to begin the process immediately. This is the only one room adobe schoolhouse in the County and must not be lost.
The recent fires brought the greatest damage and loss to historic resources in the recent history of San Diego County. More historic resources were destroyed or damaged in the Witch Creek, Harris Ranch, Guejito, Poomacha, Horno and Rice Canyon fires than in anyone's memory in the last 50 years or more. There were more than twenty major historic buildings lost or severely damaged, with at least as many more undocumented buildings lost and literally thousands of archeological sites left bare or damaged by fire, fire fighting activities or recovery efforts.
We began to compile damage and loss reports the morning after the Witch Creek fire swept through that part of the county when SOHO member Catherine Laguna called in the first casualty, the Sikes Adobe. Her fast response allowed us to react quickly in turn, to create a central website for the region where public and private agencies and the public were able to send information about historic structures which had been lost or saved; this information, along with photos where possible, was then posted immediately.
SOHO's physical site assessments began the instant roads were opened. With so much terrain damaged and many sites off the beaten path we used any means of getting into areas, which included by 4-wheel drive, hiking and by air. This work continues today.
What has unfolded is a tale of devastating loss, and the urgency of what must happen in the future to protect what little has survived becomes even more important. The challenges in San Diego County now require an extraordinary cooperative effort in preservation, restoration, reconstruction and identification. SOHO and our Partners at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Western Region, along with the California Office of Historic Preservation (OHP), County Parks and City of San Diego Historical Resources Board staff will be advocating for a countywide survey with Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, and protection measures for cultural resources. Important historic sites should have pressurized outside automatic sprinkler systems installed in fire prone areas.
"The need for a greater inventory of historic and cultural resources cannot be overstated," says California State Historic Preservation Officer Milford Wayne Donaldson. "The Office of Historic Preservation will now be focusing on assessing the damage and providing guidance for the future." The OHP provided experts to assist in the post-fire assessment including archeological sites for counties, cities, and tribes. Efforts to mitigate potential harm to archeological sites continue as the rainy season begins.
Most of these sites should have been listed on federal, state, or local registers. Without designation they will not have access to FEMA and other funds for restoration. Had they had this minimal level of recognition they would have then been listed on the fire maps as important cultural resources. This information could then be taken into account when fire fighters are assessing where to make a stand.
This process seemed to work well in the Cedar Fire as losses to historic resources were minimal and our assessment of that fire revealed many hard fought successful defenses of historic buildings. In the latest fires, only Las Flores and the Montecito Ranch received this attention, perhaps because SOHO staff was on the scene providing the information to the fire fighting teams.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Western Regional Office will be helping SOHO with some of the damage-assessment cost. Additional funds will need to be raised as well; assessments will be used in part to support and assist efforts to restore properties. If you would like to help by making a donation please contact us.
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