Last summer's Eagle Creek Fire burned more than 48,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge. Conservationists estimate that it may take years for some areas to reopen to the public. But despite the devastation, some areas in the Gorge are seeing their first signs of rebirth.
Enter, the humble mushroom. The charred wood and decaying organic matter in the wake of a fire create the perfect environment for several types of fungi to thrive. Oregon's mushroom hunters are forecasting a mushroom bonanza this spring — including a bumper crop of the coveted wild morels.
Rachel Zoller is a mushroom educator who leads wild mushroom foraging expeditions through her company Yellow Eleanor. She told OPB "Weekend Edition" host John Notarianni that wildfires change the soil in ways that are favorable for mushroom growth.
“The pH levels in the soil are adjusted after a fire goes through and it’s good conditions for morels — it’s what they like.”
She also says the fire’s destruction of their native habit leads to a last-ditch effort by many mushrooms to bear fruit. “They realize whoops, the environment’s gone, we have to do something!”
Still, Zoller strongly advises against potential mushroom foragers going hunting in much of the Eagle Creek Fire’s burn area. It’s a protected natural area, which makes foraging illegal. She also says the terrain is unsafe.
“People who think they can go in and go on the trail they’ve seen forever — those trails aren’t even there! You think you remember, but the landscape is totally different and people have been getting lost! People have been needing rescue already,” said Zoller.
The U.S. Forest Service has issued 65 citations to people for trespassing in closed areas of the Gorge since September.
Zoller adds that mushrooms are on the front line helping forests regenerate after a devastating fire.
“They’re the ones that are creating the forest conditions for everything else to come back.”
What if someone wants to legally and safely go hunting for mushrooms? Zoller recommends doing your research and looking for other burned areas.
“There are plenty of other burns that happen either in national forests or state land that we have access to. Sometimes you need a permit. Recently logged areas have the same effect so you can go an look in those areas that are not within a protected boundary.”