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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Burn Morels: Everything You Need to Know

Updated: May 3

In recent years, as with many western states, it has felt like we've had two seasons in Colorado: winter and fire. Wildfires ripped through dry forests, billions of dollars were spent on fire fighting and suppression, and too many homes and structures were lost in the blazes. A fire epidemic, some might say. However, there is a silver lining in all of the destruction.


Morels.

A pile of black morels found in Colorado.
A haul of black morels picked in Colorado!

Burn morels have the strange ability to change the way you feel about a wildfire. From sadness and worry to a little bit of 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 we will cover in the Colorado Morel Series. In the previous five posts of the series, I've laid down the groundwork to teach you how to become a better morel hunter, hopefully. In this post, we will focus less on the actual finding of the morels and more on the finding of "good" burns. 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 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!


A single burn morel growing next to a charred log.
A single burn morel growing next to a charred log.

Before we get into the details of choosing burns, let's touch on some of the specifics of burn morels. First, as previously mentioned, they are considered black morels, 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, a handful of different species grow in burns. Think back to the taxonomy section in The Basics - Part 1, and bear with me again for a little bit...


My current understanding is that there are four (maybe five) species of burn morels:

  • Morchella sextelata

  • Morchella septimelata

  • Morchella capitata

  • Morchella tomentosa

Note: Other sources may list these species under different names. 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 suit a new classification better. Other times, the first person to name them just got it wrong...


The first three morel species appear similar, 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 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 at one of the links below.


Most burn morels I have picked in Colorado fit best into the M. septimelata description. For more information related to this topic, please visit these links. The first is the morel family key on Mushroom Expert, which I find extremely helpful. The second is this blog post by my friends over at Modern Forager, which goes into more detail about all of this taxonomy talk. This is the one that has information about M. brunnea as a burn species. More good stuff from Modern Forager is coming a little later as well!


I think that's enough of that! Let's get into figuring out how actually to find burn morels! This process can be as simple or as complicated as you want. I hope you like maps.


 

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Screenshot of a burn map.
Screen grab from OnX Maps showing the historic wildfire data in SW Colorado.

Mapping for Burn Morels


I reference various maps for everything I do in the outdoors: foraging, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, and 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 maps to use, and there are plenty of options for 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, whereas the free options sometimes require a little digging around. I have used various of these and will list them below with some of my thoughts on each one. Understand that this list is not comprehensive; it is merely what I'm familiar with.


Mapping Options for Purchase:


I use the amazing Burn Morel Maps made by my friends at Modern Forager to decide where I'm going to look for morels! As I detail in my Burn Morel Article, picking the right burns and picking where to go within those burns will offer the highest chance for success. I was in Oregon visiting friends, and we decided to go look for morels on a whim. I pulled up the Modern Forager Burn Maps, selected a couple of high-rated nearby burns, and we picked over 300 morels that same day!


This is an affiliate link that earns me a commission at no extra cost to you! Thank you!


  • OnX Maps is an amazing mapping software and is my most used for anything other than burn morels. It was originally created for hunters, but they also have options for other types of outdoor recreation. To access the wildfire data on their maps, you must purchase an annual subscription to their application. 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!

Mapping Options for Free:


  • Google Earth is a free mapping software that everyone is probably familiar with. I don't use it often, but it has many nice features, including a 3D view, that can give you a better idea of topography if you find topo-lines difficult to read on maps. As far as I'm aware, historic burn data is not 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 other sources and overlay them on Google Earth.


  • Incident Information System is a website that only covers current or recent incidents. It's good to check on burns during fire season to note places to check the following year, but it does not have historical data.


Screenshot of a burn map.
Another screen grab from OnX showing some of the layer options and a close-up of part of the 2018 Silver Creek fire.

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! After a bad fire year, which seems increasingly common, picking which burn to target for more can be challenging. Luckily, there are lots of good ways to narrow things down. If you decide to purchase the Modern Forager Burn Maps, you will already have some great burns selected for you!


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 with 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 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 looking at your maps!


From there, you'll want to eliminate any areas you can't access or pick morels. 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 will be looking for burns on National Forest land most of the time. Speaking of, once you've found an area where 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, 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, with May to July being the prime time. Though, burn morels can be picked through the summer during the best, rainy years!


Soil temperature is just as important for burn morels, so ensure you have your thermometer when you head out! As with the other morels, you'll look for soil temps around 50 and up to 60 degrees. You will probably need to change your elevation or aspect outside of that range. 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 toward 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 right. Where do you start!? Some of these burns cover tens of thousands of acres, that's a lot of potential for habitat growth! 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 the features that are more likely to hold morels.


For starters, I would suggest avoiding the areas of the burn that were turned into a moonscape. Nothing left but dirt and rocks. Typically, these areas burned really hot and scorched all living things within the top layers of the soil. The main features you will 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 near roads make things easier for you, but they also make them easy for other morel seekers!


Important Note: The 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. Here's a great article by Modern Forager that dives into more information about fire retardant risks.


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 as examples because satellite imagery has been updated to show the burn scar. For more recent burns, you typically won't 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 with the right features!


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.

Screenshot of a burn map.

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 is on a flat south-facing aspect, just over 9000 feet. Easy walking! Something I would probably check in early June or maybe even late May!

Screenshot of a burn map.

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.

Screenshot of a burn map.

This is what that spot looked like after the burn. Unfortunately, many of those trees that survived the beetles got taken out by the fire. Nonetheless, it is 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 an east-to-northeast aspect, which is prime for morels, in my opinion! Early to mid-June is when I would likely visit a spot like this.

Screenshot of a burn map.

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. 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.

Screenshot of a burn map.

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 is a northern aspect. Meaning it would likely match up with the early to mid-June spots above.

Screenshot of a burn map.

And finally, here it is zoomed in to get pre-burn images. Look at that tree density. very typical of northern aspects.

Screenshot of a burn map.

Remember! You will likely be working with images like the last one 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 look for when you actually head out to look for morels in a burn area.


So, you've researched 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 won't even be relevant, but just in case, let's talk about what little things you can do once you're in the field to have some success hopefully.


The first is something I've already mentioned in this post. Check your temperatures and adjust elevation and aspect to fit the morels' preferred ranges. Burns can often dry out faster than their forested counterparts, so you may need to adjust those again to find 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.


A great example of a micro-feature that the morels love! This one is from the burn in Oregon that we visited in 2018.
A great example of a micro-feature that the morels love! This one is from the burn in Oregon that we visited in 2018.

My final tip is to have a backup plan. Sometimes, everything looks right, but the burn doesn't seem to produce more. I've had this happen to me in the past, but luckily, I had a backup plan with some nearby spots to 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 find yourself in the perfect situation and end up with more burn morels than you know what to do with, all the hard work will be worth it.



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