Following the wildfires, parts of the Burns Lake region have seen an explosion in mushroom growth, and the arrival of dozens of mushroom pickers.
The main species sought by pickers is the morel, which looks like bulbous honeycombs and grows from the remains of burned forests. The ground in some areas, such as around Nadina Mountain is carpeted with morels.
They’re a delicacy item on gourmet restaurant menus but for the many pickers they’re a cash crop.
A good day of mushroom picking can yield at least 18 pounds of morels, which currently sell for $5-$6 a pound.
Pickers can take them home and cook them up, however most sell them to buyers who have set up small camps for receiving, weighing and drying the mushrooms.
There are three buyers working on the Southside and one near Fraser Lake, as Burns Lake resident Leah Leween told Lakes District News.
One buyer from Saskatchewan set up a camp near Grassy Plains last week.
“This is my first time here. Reason is because you chase the fires, the reason for the mushrooms to grow,” he said.
“In 2016 I found myself unemployed and became a buyer. My hobby has been picking wild mushrooms for 40 years and then it turned into a sideline business. I was picking pine mushrooms in Alberta in the early 80s.”
He points to the morels sitting on drying racks, which he said contain 250 pounds of mushrooms sold to him over two days.
But on a good day’s haul he can buy 1,000 pounds from pickers.
He buys morels for $5 a pound and then ships and sells them to West Coast Wild Foods in Burnaby for $8 a pound.
Since mushrooms are more than 90 percent water, he dries them out and they shrink and become brittle. He runs his fan all night to counteract nighttime moisture.
“Fourteen pounds becomes one pound once they’re dry,” he said.
He plops down a plastic bag full of morels. “This is 20 pounds dried. Worth a couple grand.”
He plans to stay here for at least a few weeks and later in the summer will head to Saskatchewan for the chanterelle mushroom season.
Some communities in British Columbia, such as the ?Esdilagh First Nation between Quesnel and Williams Lake have banned picking in certain areas and started a permit system to regulate the activity.
That was done out of concern for ecologically and culturally sensitive areas, and because some pickers are known for leaving behind a mess.
Mushroom picking currently operates in an economic and legislative grey zone. Transactions between pickers and buyers are usually done with cash, and prices aren’t set or controlled by a central authority. Government regulation of picking and buying focuses mainly on where picking is permitted: on provincial forest lands.
Permission is required to pick mushrooms on First Nations reserves, tree farm licenses, leased Crown land and private lands.
Picking is prohibited in parks, ecological reserves and recreation areas, and on defense lands.
The removal of the mushrooms itself, however, appears to have little effect on the environment, according to Professor Keith Egger, a microbiologist at the University of Northern British Columbia.
“I’ve seen no evidence that harvesting morels negatively impacts the mushroom,” he said.
“The morel itself is the fruiting body of the fungus, so it’s no different harvesting morels than it is harvesting apples, for example. It is the fruiting body that is being removed while the main part of the fungus, the mycelium, is growing below ground and continuing to carry out ecosystem services.”