Safety tips for foraging for morel mushrooms in Swan Lake Fire scar, Kenai, Alaska

Foraging for morels in old fire scars can be tricky. Remember to be careful and safe when foraging! (Photo by Colin Canterbury)


Last year, the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, affected over 167,000 acres of federal land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service. The lightning caused fire started on June 5, 2019 and wasn’t contained until December 5, 2019. Over the life of the fire, over 3,000 wildland firefighters were required to suppress fire activity.

The Swan Lake Fire, which impacted portions of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, burned with a variety of intensities over the four months it was active, burning hot through black spruce stands while dancing lightly around wetlands. The regrowth of plants began shortly after the suppression of the wildfire. Young plants, like fireweed and willow, feed a wide variety of wildlife species, while birch and aspen trees sprout saplings to restore the forest canopy.

Mushrooms are considered the fruiting bodies of mycelium, a network of threadlike cells that is the vegetative body of a fungus. All mushrooms come from fungus, but not all fungus produce mushrooms. After a fire, morel mushrooms might grow in abundance for the first three years. In Alaska, they are found mostly in forests dominated by black spruce. Mushrooms, like morels, are essential to forest regrowth by decomposing organic material into new soil, creating healthy habitat for new plants and reducing the risk of soil erosion. Morels grow across northern climates and have conical, brown caps, and are highly sought after by mushroom hunters. Many Alaskan families participate in harvesting morels for personal consumption.

Like many hunting adventures, there are challenges involved in hunting morels. Burn areas present a variety of risks, and it is important to mitigate risks as much as possible. In the fire zone, there are three main risks to be aware of — ash pits, hazard trees, and tripping hazards.

  • Ash pits are holes in the ground filled with ash, sometimes containing hot embers. Many times, ash pits are undetectable, and can remain dangerous long after suppression efforts have ended.
  • Hazard trees are prevalent among any fire scar. Trees in a burn area have been weakened, many times from the inside out, or underground via the root system, increasing the potential for falling trees.
  • Tripping hazards, including holes in the ground, exposed roots, and remnants of burned trees, are all present in burned areas.

Additional safety considerations include letting friends or family members know where you plan to look for morels. Many landscapes look different after a fire, making it unrecognizable to even those who may be familiar with the area.

Morels can resemble other closely related species that are frequently found in similar habitats. Edibility of other species run the gamut from innocuous and tasty to deadly poisonous, so learning to identify “true” morels from “false” morels is critical.

To learn more about foraging for morels on your public lands, please contact your local refuge or forest.

Kari Cobb is the acting public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.