Olla stories, before and after fires

Ollas in Napak
Ollas remaining after a fire that destroyed huts in Napak in northern Uganda. Photo: Steven Ariong

I was surprised when I saw this photo of what was left after 32 grass-thatched houses burned in a wildfire in the northern Ugandan village of Napak. According to a report, the fire may have been started by locals who were hunting for rats. Among the debris and ashes, you can see quite a few ollas, large clay pots. Ancient people used these hundreds or thousands of years ago for storing water. They have a narrow neck to reduce evaporation.

I found it interesting that ollas are still being used today. If I wanted something in which to store several gallons of water I would simply go to a discount store and buy a plastic jerry can, but that may not be feasible for the folks that live in northern Uganda.

It was also interesting to me because I discovered two ollas in nearly mint condition that had been sitting around for hundreds of years.

It happened on April 25, 1989 when I was working as a wildland engine captain on the Cleveland National Forest east of San Diego. During the winter there were few wildland fires, and those of us that were not furloughed during the off-season usually found a special project to work on. The weather in San Diego County in the winter is mild, except in the higher elevations in the Laguna Mountains, so I volunteered to attend paraprofessional archaeologist training. After becoming qualified, it got me out of the office for weeks at a time, doing archaeology surveys in areas where we planned to conduct prescribed fires.

Another firefighter, Dave Volgarino, went through the training with me, and we did the surveys together, hiking cross country all day in very remote areas, busting through brush recording any native American sites or artifacts that we found, which were mostly left there by the Kumeyaay people. The most exciting stuff that we ran across were one or two arrow heads, mortar or grinding depressions in boulders, flakes where ancient people made projectile points, and very rarely some broken pieces of ollas or pottery.

Until…one day Dave and I were surveying in an area that looked like a pretty good place for camping.

camping spot
The potential camping spot. USFS photo by Bill Gabbert.

It was a flat area under some oak trees about 1/10 acre in size adjacent to a seasonal creek. I was hiking through brush on the hill above the creek looking for any signs of ancient people and saw a rock overhang behind a chamise bush.

Ollas on the hill
The hillside where Bill Gabbert was searching. USFS photo by Bill Gabbert

I pulled the brush aside and could not believe my eyes. Not one but two ollas, in almost mint condition.

Dave was down by the creek and I said to him “Dave, you should take a look at this”. That’s all I said. He knew me well because we had spent so much time working together and must have heard something unusual in my voice because he ran up the hill through the brush to my location.

Bill and ollas
Bill Gabbert and the ollas, where they were found. USFS photo by Dave Volgarino.

We took pictures and recorded the estimated size of the pots and marked their location on a topographic map. When we got back to the office I called the Forest Archaeologist who had trained us, and she was amazed. It was extremely rare to find something like that. She said they would need to be removed for safe keeping to ensure that they were not vandalized or stolen.

A closer view of the ollas. USFS photo by Bill Gabbert.

A few days later we went back to the site with her, carrying two cardboard boxes, duct tape, and bubble wrap. We documented the site further under the supervision of the archaeologist, and very, very carefully pulled the ollas from their resting place where they had been for a very long time, covered them in the bubble wrap, then gently packed the thin-walled clay pots into the boxes. I made carrying handles with the duct tape and we hiked out with our treasures, cross country through brush and over boulders, hoping, HOPING, that we could get the ollas back to civilization in one piece.

Ollas at Alpine
Ollas discovered in the Cleveland National Forest, displayed at USFS office in Alpine, Calif. USFS photo by Maureen Anderson.

We did — and today they are in a plexiglass display case in the lobby of the USFS Descanso District office in Alpine, California. I am very glad they are not hidden away in the basement of some museum.

Thanks go out to Maureen for taking and sending the photo of the ollas in the display case.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

7 thoughts on “Olla stories, before and after fires”

  1. So Bill, I’m waiting to hear a response from those that think that all Natural Resources Agency firefighters should be classified as “firefighters”, join the IAFF and sit back collecting “rocking chair money” during the off-season instead of gaining the experiences that you, I and thousands of other “Forestry Technicians” have had over the past decades, and that ultimately resulted in us being more effective members of our Agencies managemnet structure in FMO positions.

  2. I did the same as you by volunteering to attend the archo training on the San Bernardino in the Big Bear area. Got to scout out some great sites. found many projectile points and lots of pottery shards. Never did find a beautiful,intact olla. Congrats on that Bill.

  3. Thanks for the Story Bill it is a change. A much needed one, showing that USFS doesn’t just fight fires but helps preserve history, a very touching story in MHO.

  4. Very neat story … I would expect if you scratch a wildland firefighter there is an “…ologist” buried somewhere underneath.


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