Large wildfires are once again uncontrollably threatening much of the intermountain west in North America. Just 5 miles/ 8 km from the oncoming edge of the Cub Creek fire here in Washington is one of my most favorite places to record anywhere. Thirtymile Meadows is one of the very few places I know of in the continuous 48 United States that is neither rainforest nor remote island where I can set up my microphones, press record, and expect a soundscape free of human-generated noise for at least 4 hours to be the result. Sometimes it can be up to nearly a day. There are plenty of places I can get away from ground-based vehicles, but Thirtymile has the magic of not being under continually active flight paths. No vehicles. No aircraft. Nothing but birds, coyotes, and me.
This was a little more than a month ago, the morning of Summer Solstice. It’s merely an excerpt.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to record there again, at least not a soundscape such as this, filled with birdsong. It’s highly likely my next trip with be filled with the whistling winds that wind around burned snags, the creaking of swaying barren trunks, perhaps the snapping and falling of dead wood.
Stands up on soapbox:
These forests depend upon fire for their very survival, but the rejuvenating fire that feeds their growth is low-level, fuel-consuming, and under-story burning. It cracks open seeds for hardy conifers. It clears room for new seedlings. It brings down larger diseased trees, returning their nutrients to the soil.
The fires we see raging now are not those fires.
For decades we have managed these forests by preventing fire without clearing the accumulating fuels. In the effort to keep “timber stock” available for logging and to protect the encroaching human settlements, all fire is suppressed. Weakened and dried by the advancement of climate change, trees age without replacement while dense, dry growth builds up beneath.
A simple spark (a lightning strike, an untended campfire, the hot under-carriage of a vehicle, a cigarette butt) is all that is needed to start a conflagration that does not clear and rejuvenate, but destroys.
With both the understory and tree cover gone, the ground becomes loose and rocky. The Autumn rains, Winter snows, and Spring melts wash away the fertile soils that nurse future growth.
We lose forest, and it doesn’t grow back. Not all of it. The interiors are safe for now, and can slowly re-grow over the ensuing decades if left un-molested. The edges are gone, however, and each successive fire and monsoon season scales them back farther.
Thirtymile Meadows is at a unique interface of interior, edge, and wet meadow. The meadow will survive, as should the deep forest to its Northeast. The Southwest edge, though, will disappear if the Cub Creek Fire reaches it. Already scarred by human-caused fires nearly twenty years ago, the Southern edge of Thirtymile Meadows is dry, fuel-filled, and loose.
I don’t have an answer. I don’t have a plan. I just want to make people aware.
I also want to share the beauty of soundscapes that are in danger of disappearing, whether from noise pollution or ecosystem loss.
Some more tastes of Thirtymile Meadows:
A lone coyote walks across the midnight meadow
The whole of the Okanogan Country is a beautiful trip for the ears.
Just a few miles up the road is Long Swamp
Just due East is Skull and Crossbones Ridge
Keep going East and you’ll come upon Sinlahekin Valley at the edge of Okanogan Country. Sinlahekin had its own brush with fire last year when the Palmer Fire made it near to the northern access