Before the fire

It’s been a horrible year for fires out west. I’ve spent much of the summer dodging smoke and trying to find areas to record that are not on fire.   Southeastern Arizona is a naturally fire-prone area, with much of the flora and fauna adapted to wildfires from dry lightning storms at the start of  the monsoons.  This year, a very dry spring left the vegetation quite vulnerable to ignition, and there were a number of fires caused by people doing stupid things like target-shooting near dry grass.

In early April, accompanied by Lang Elliot, I went down to Las Cienegas National Conservation Area to record in some of my favorite spots.  Cienega Creek creates a permanent and lush riparian area, which is also fed by some springs.  Tall stands of cottonwood and willow create a birdy oasis, and provide wonderful areas to record nature just a short hike in from the main roads.  We set out mics overnight at Mattie Springs and Empire Gulch, and I also recorded from our camp near North

It was too early in the year for many of the singing insects, but I got a lovely nighttime recording at Mattie Spring, with the bubbling creek, crickets, a Western Screech Owl, the distant growls of Chiricahua leopard frogs (a rare species recently reintroduced to the area), and a distant Great Horned Owl all above the whispers of the cottonwood trees:

The following morning the recorder picked up a lovely dawn chorus of Canyon Wrens, White-winged Doves, Flickers, and more.

Meanwhile, over at Empire Gulch, Great Horned Owls, Elf Owls, and Western Screech Owls were all calling (some at the same time), but my recorder malfunctioned – the beginning of the end for my Sony PCM-M10.  I’ve managed to get a few decent recordings from it since, but the input jack is pretty much shot.

Both Lang and I wanted to return to Las Cienegas to record after more of the migrating birds had arrived.  But before we could do so, a wildfire swept through the area, right through both Empire Gulch and Mattie Spring, as well as the surrounding grassland and mesquite shrubland.  The Sawmill Fire started on April 23rd, by an off-duty Border Patrol officer who thought it was a good idea to be target shooting at explosive targets on state land.  The fire burned 20,000 acres of the northern Santa Rita Mountains in the first three days.  Then the wind came up, and the fire raced to the east, consuming another 27,000 acres in just 24 hours.  I’ve never seen a fire move so fast.  But that speed may have saved much of the riparian area.  The BLM has closed the burn area, but the parts of the riparian area that are visible look singed, but not burnt.  Only the very southern edge of the fire is visible, so it’s possible that the fire was more extensive in other parts along the stream.  Much of the riparian area is full of decadent cottonwoods, with a lot of deadfall and litter build-up.  If the fire did get in there, it could not only affect the nesting habitat of many birds, cover and foraging habitat for many mammals and insects, but would also likely affect the hydrology of a very flood-prone system.

Deadfall and leaf litter in the cottonwood forest along Mattie Creek.

Deadfall and leaf litter in the cottonwood forest along Mattie Creek.


Remnants of a flash flood along Mattie Creek.

Remnants of a flash flood along Mattie Creek.

Many animals depend upon these desert riparian areas.  It’s very sad to see them destroyed by human stupidity.

For more on the Sawmill Fire click here.

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2 thoughts on “Before the fire

  1. guile

    Nice recordings. Liked the dawn one more. What is the persistent buzzing noise? I looked up the PCM-M10 .. confusing button layout. What are you gonna replace it with?

    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I think the buzzing noise you are referring to is a hummingbird. Sony has a replacement for the M10 available, but I think I might go for the Sound Devices Mix-Pre 3.


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