Finding Burn Morels in Colorado
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
In recent years, as with many of the western states, it has felt like we've had two seasons in Colorado: winter and fire. Wildfires ripping through dry forests, billions of dollars spent on fire fighting and suppression, and too many homes and structures lost in the blazes. A fire epidemic some might say. However, there is a silver lining in all of the destruction... Morels.
Burn morels have the strange ability to change the way you feel about a wildfire. From sadness and worry to a little bit a excitement and wonder. After reading this, and especially after finding your first great haul of burn morels, you will understand exactly what I'm talking about. The next time you drive by a fire scar your mind will drift to morels, "look at all that forest that was destroyed... so sad, how horrible... I hope no one was hurt... I wonder if that drainage would be a good spot for morels... or maybe that flat up there on the edge of the burn..." It's quite a dichotomy that these little mushrooms can create!
About Burn Morels
Burn morels are the final type of morel that we will cover in Colorado Morel Series. In the previous five posts of the series I've laid down the ground work to hopefully teach you how to become a better morel hunter. In this post we're going to focus less on the actual finding of the morels, and more on the finding of "good" burns. See, there's that dichotomy creeping in again... good burns...
Unlike the riparian loving yellow morels, and 'natural' black morels, the burn morels are a bit easier to find once you're in the right habitat. And once you do find them you usually find a ton! The reason they're easier to find should be pretty obvious; find the burns to find the morels! That said, it's not nearly as simple as just choosing any ol' burn, not all burns are good for morels. Figuring out which burns to target, when to target them, and what areas to focus on within the burns are the keys to successfully finding burn morels. My goal with this post is to teach you how to accomplish all of the above!
Before we get into the details of choosing burns, let's touch on some of the specifics of burn morels. First, they are considered black morels as previously mentioned, so they share the same traits as the non-burn black morels we covered in the last post, and The Basics - Part 1. As I also mentioned in the post about black morels, there are a handful of different species that grow in burns. Think back to the taxonomy section in The Basics - Part 1 and bear with me again for just a little bit...
My current understanding is that there are four (maybe five) species of burn morels:
Note: You may see these species listed under different names in other sources. The changing and updating of binomial names is a common, and sometimes annoying, side-effect of a fairly novel field of study. As more information comes in about a species from DNA sequencing or from having more specimens to study the names sometimes have to be updated to better suit a new classification. Other times the first person to name them just got it wrong...
The first three of these morel species are very similar in appearance, and the first two are indistinguishable without DNA sequencing. The fourth species, M. tomentosa, is often called the gray morel and is distinguishable because it is covered in fine hairs and can appear to be gray in color. I've also recently read that one of our natural black morel species, M. brunnea, may sometimes fruit in burns. I don't know anything else about this... there's a little more information in one of the links below.
I've read and been told that we have gray morels in Colorado, but I have never personally found one. After posting this blog, it has been confirmed by a few reliable sources that Morchella tomentosa can indeed be found in Colorado burns. Most of the burn morels that I have picked in Colorado fit best into the M. septimelata description. For more information related to this topic please reference these links. The first is the morel family key on Mushroom Expert which I find extremely helpful. The second is a recent blog post by my friends over at Modern Forager which goes into some more details about all of this nerdy taxonomy talk, this is the one that has a little information about M. brunnea as a burn species. More good stuff from Modern Forager coming a little later as well!
I think that's enough of that! Let's get into figuring out how to actually find burn morels! This process can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. I hope you like maps...
Mapping for Burn Morels
I reference various maps for everything I do in the outdoors: foraging, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, even work! They're invaluable for pre-trip planning and almost always make my outings more efficient and successful. So, let's talk about how maps will help you succeed at finding burn morels.
The first step is choosing which map(s) to use, and there are plenty of options when it comes to mapping software that will provide you with burn information. Some are free and some have a cost associated with them. Usually, if you pay for it you're getting the information more readily, where as the free options sometimes require a little digging around. I have used a variety of these and will list them below with some of my thoughts on each one. Understand that this list is not comprehensive, merely what I'm familiar with. If you have any other mapping resources that you like please let me know in the comments below!
Mapping Options for Purchase:
OnX Maps is an amazing mapping software, and is my most used by far. It was created for hunters, but has a ton of great features that are useful for any sort of outdoor recreation. For access to the wildfire data on their maps you have to purchase a subscription to their smart phone app. They have annual subscription options for a single state for $29.99/yr, or all 50 states for $99.99/yr. All subscription options give you access to their web app as well which is great when you want to do some at-home scouting on your computer. I would highly recommend checking it out using their free 7-day trial if you're curious about it at all. The app allows you to download maps and utilize them with GPS tracking while your phone is in airplane mode. You do not need cell phone service to use your downloaded maps! There are tons of different layer options available including public and private land boundaries, land ownership information, historical and current wildfires (obviously), and many others! In my opinion this is the best option if you're someone who participates in many of the recreational opportunities in Colorado; someone who hunts, fishes, forages, hikes, and wants mapping for all of it! OnX is also available as GPS chips which are sold by the state for $119.00, however the GPS chips do not include the wildfire layers. If you decide this is the option for you please tell them Orion at Forage Colorado sent you! I don't get anything from them for recommending their product, but maybe in the future! Also feel free to get in touch if you need some help with this software, I'm very familiar with it. https://www.onxmaps.com/
The Modern Forager Curated Burn Maps are a great option if you're new to mapping, new to hunting burn morels, and just want something that makes the process as easy as possible. They offer subscription options for just Colorado which is $25.00, or you can purchase access to maps for all of the western and southwestern states, and Alaska for $39.00; great for anyone looking to do a little myco-tourism in the spring! Purchasing either subscription will also give you access to their previous burn maps, all of which are accessed through your account on their website. From there you are able to look at all of the burns, or you can sort through the 'A' list and 'B' list burns that have been hand-picked by the duo at Modern Forager. Many of these hand-picked burns include notes of their thoughts on the burn; often some useful insight if you're unsure of where to begin. In addition to the great maps and information, your subscription also includes their 36 page Burn Morel E-book, lots of value here! I had these maps last year and used them in combination with my OnX maps to locate a burn in Oregon that we picked a few hundred morels off of in a couple hours. https://www.modern-forager.com/burn-morels/
Gaia GPS is another subscription based smartphone app that I will give an honorable mention to. It's very similar to OnX in terms of features it offers, and is a little less expensive. I have used this app in the past and personally did not like it nearly as much as OnX, though that was probably because I wasn't as familiar with the functionality. I think for what it offers it is still a very good option. You'll have to research this one more yourself if you're interested. https://www.gaiagps.com/
Mapping Options for Free:
Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination Group (GeoMAC) is a free online mapping application that was designed for fire managers. It provides data for both historic and current fires, but can be a little fiddly to figure out if you aren't familiar with this sort of mapping application. I believe you can download KLM files to use on your own maps or devices, but I don't bother messing with that because of the other mapping options I use. This is going to be your best option if you want to go for the free mapping route. https://www.geomac.gov/viewer/viewer.shtml
Google Earth is a free mapping software that everyone is probably familiar with. I don't use it very often, but it has a lot of nice features including 3D view that can give you a better idea of topography if you aren't great at understanding topo-lines on maps. You can use it both as a web app, or the more feature rich but still free 'Pro Version'. As far as I'm aware, historic burn data is not something that it already available on Google Earth, and because of my inexperience I haven't messed with fire data on it, but I believe you can download KLM files from GeoMAC or other sources and overlay them on Google Earth. https://www.google.com/earth/
Incident Information System is a website that only covers current or recent incidents. It's good for checking on burns during fire season to make note of places to check the following year, but it does not have historical data. It's still something that I find useful to look at during fire season. https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/
Choosing a Burn
Now that you have more mapping options for finding burns than you probably needed, let's talk about choosing burns to hunt for morels! Last year, 2018, there were 1,328 wildfires that burned around 500,000 acres making it Colorado's second worst year for fires in terms of acreage burned*. Over a thousand wildfires in one year makes trying to select a good burn to hunt for morels quite a task! Luckily there are lots of good ways to narrow things down. If you decide to purchase the Modern Forager maps you will already some great burns selected for you!
*Note: The worst year in recent history was 2002 with about double the acreage burned in 2018, almost a million acres!! For reference, the yearly average is around 100,000 acres (source: https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html).
The first thing to know is that burn morels fruit best in the first year after the burn. Quantity reduces each year after that, so it's typically better to stick to burns from the previous two years or so. The next trait you want to look for in a burn is a montane habitat that had decent tree density before the fire (use the satellite view on your maps to see tree density). The same elevations that black morels grow in will be good for burn morels; 7,000 feet or so, up to alpine. With that information you can eliminate any old burns, low elevation burns, or burns in areas with low tree density.
Tip: older, recovering burn scars can be decent spots to pick natural black morels several years after a burn, so keep that in mind when you're looking at your maps!
From there you'll want to eliminate any areas that you aren't legally allowed to access, or pick morels in. Those include private lands, wilderness areas, most state owned lands, and most National and State Parks. As you can probably tell from the pictures, I find OnX to be really handy for sorting out the land ownership details, but most of the mapping options above will have some way to show ownership. Be sure you are foraging in an area where it's allowed! When it comes to morels you're going to be looking for burns on National Forest land most of the time. Speaking of, once you've found an area that you want to hunt for morels, be sure to check in with the managing district for that area. Each National Forest will have its own ranger district, give them a call or stop in to the office and ask about regulations, permits, and access before you head out in search of morels!
How to Find Burn Morels
Once you've used the above criteria to narrow things down a bit you can start thinking about when and where to look for morels in a burn! The 'when' for burn morels will be essentially the same as black morels: starting mid to late May and moving into the late summer, with May to June being the prime time. Soil temperature is just as important for burn morels so make sure you have your thermometer with you when you head out! As with the other morels, you'll be looking for soil temps around 50 degrees and up to 60 degrees. Outside of that range means that you will probably need to change your elevation or aspect. Remember, south facing aspects warm faster than north facing ones! Additionally, if you're in the southern half of the state your "when-range" might shift a little more towards early May depending on temperatures. Southern latitudes warm faster, something to keep in mind...
Now, you've got a burn picked out on the maps, and the timing is about right, where do you start!? Some of these burns cover tens of thousands of acres, that's a lot of potential morel habitat! When thinking about finding morels on a burn there are two 'wheres' to keep in mind: the specific areas within the burn to start your search, and then the features to look for within those area that are more likely to hold morels.
For starters, I would suggest avoiding the areas of the burn that were turned into a "moonscape", as in nothing left but dirt and rocks. Typically these areas burned really hot and scorched all living things within the top layers of the soil. With that in mind, the main features you're going to want to look for in a burn are areas that previously had heavy tree cover and still have some remnant of those trees. Usually, this means edges of the burn, islands of trees that didn't get burned, and other areas where the fire left some signs of life. Any of these areas that are near roads make things easier for you, but they also make them easy for other morel seekers!
Important Note: edges of burns are great for morels, but sometimes these edges are created by firefighters dropping retardant chemicals. Use common sense and avoid collecting morels from areas that were treated with retardant.
Because the fire boundaries on maps are approximations you will never know the complete picture until you arrive! Below, I'm using pictures of the 2016 Beaver Creek Fire for examples because satellite imagery has updated to show the burn scar. For more recent burns you typically wont have that luxury. So, mark several areas on your map with decent tree cover that are within the burn perimeter, near roads, or that aren't too bad of a hike, and when you get there find the spots that have the right features!
Here we go...
This is an example of a moonscape. Morels may fruit here, but typically when a fire burns hot enough to clear out a previously forested area the top layers of soil are too damaged.
Here's a prime example of an area you would want to have at the top of your list. An edge that still has some remnants of trees and is near a road! This one happens to be on a pretty flat south facing aspect just over 9000 feet. Easy walking! Something I would probably check in early June or maybe even late May!
I zoomed in on this one to pull up the satellite imagery from before the burn. This is the type of imagery you'll be working with for last year's burns. The area I circled is already an 'island' that is almost completely surrounded by beetle killed trees. The Beaver Creek fire mostly burned beetle kill, so in this instance finding areas of trees that were still alive before the burn could lead to a morel goldmine.
This is what that spot looked like after the burn... a large portion of those trees that survived the beetles got taken out by the fire, unfortunately. Nonetheless, a decent spot to check for morels. Pretty close to the road and a perfect example of an island of trees within a burn. This one is on and east to northeast aspect, prime for morels in my opinion! Early to mid-June is when I would likely visit a spot like this, if I had to take a guess.
Here's one final example of a great edge from this burn. I pulled off the topographic lines so you could see the details, but it's north facing as seen in the next image. Plenty of tree remnants that appear as the little orange-ish brown dots (toasted needles still on the burnt trees), some moonscape areas in the middle, but likely still worth a search as you move to the west side of this spot where the most dense tree remnants are.
Here it is with topo-lines. This terrain is a little steeper than some of the other examples, but the morels don't usually mind too much. This spot is a little lower in elevation, but it's a northern aspect. Meaning it would likely match up with the early to mid-June spots above.
And finally, here it is zoomed in to get pre-burn images. Look at that tree density... very typical of northern aspects.
Remember! One last reminder. Images like the last one are what you will be working with when looking at your satellite imagery from last year's burns. The examples I used that show the burned areas are a convenient way for me to demonstrate what features you should be looking for when you actually head out to look for morels in a burn area.
So, finally, you've done your research and found a likely looking burn from last year. You've studied the satellite imagery and found a few areas of dense tree cover within the burn boundary. Off you go ready for a successful day of picking burn morels, but you get there and you're having trouble finding anything even though the features match what I've recommended and the conditions seem correct! What gives?! To be clear, burn morels are often so prolific that this imaginary scenario wont even be relevant, but just in case let's talk about what little things you can do once you're in the field to hopefully have some success.
The first is something I've already mentioned in this blog, check your temperatures and adjust elevation and aspect to fit the morels preferred ranges. Burns can often dry out faster than their forested counter parts, so you may also need to adjust those again to find some moisture in the soil. If the soil temperature and moisture are good, the next step is to start targeting micro-features within the area you're searching. These are the same features to look for when hunting for yellows and natural black morels, except in this instance they're usually burnt. Things that may hold a little extra moisture or create a little micro-climate such as low spots, logs, stumps, rocks, branches, etc.
My final tip is to have a back-up plan. Sometimes everything looks right, but the burn just doesn't seem produce morels. I've had this happen to me in the past, but luckily I had a back up plan with some nearby spots to go search for natural morels, and we ended up having a decent day even though the burn was a bust! Be adaptive, plan ahead, and don't give up! When you do find yourself in the perfect situation and you end up with more burn morels than you know what to do with, all the hard work will be worth it.