There are the facts: The Valley Fire that hit Lake County last September was one of the most destructive in California history. The reality becomes really clear when I drive through what once was a neighborhood in the town of Cobb. I see stone chimneys standing alone, foundations that outline former houses. The hills above had been thick with pine and fir trees. Now?
“It looks like a moonscape with trees. The trees have been burned so badly there are no needles left,” Kevin Sadlier says. It’s actually because of this fire that Sadlier drove two hours from his home in Marin to explore Lake County this morning.
“Sometimes we call it ‘chasing the burns,’ ” he says, in search of the black morel mushrooms that grow in the springtime after a forest fire. Joining Sadlier is fellow wild mushroom enthusiast Connie Green, who says morels are opportunists.
“The spring following a summer or autumn fire is a golden opportunity for morels,” Green says. “It’s as if fire is taking a gigantic eraser, and wiped life out. Where there’s a void, where cleansing fire has made this rather sad, with black sticks in their landscape, morels love this.”
Sadlier runs a garden center in Marin and co-founded the Mycological Society of Marin County. He doesn’t sell most of the wild mushrooms he finds, but instead gives them to chefs -- in exchange for meals. He scouted here, where the Valley Fire hit, a couple weeks back, measuring soil temperature and waiting for the perfect conditions.
“It rained, it warmed up, we have a bit of canopy left, and we have some needleleaf litter on the ground keeping moisture in the soil. Now all we need is morels,” he says.
But Connie Green warns, “Morels make fools of all of us.” Finding the right conditions doesn’t guarantee success. It’s easy to mistake tiny burnt stumps or rocks for morels. Their textured caps are long and cone-shaped, like dark honeycomb.
“That’s part of their charm. We find maybe it’s like a bad boyfriend or girlfriend that you keep going out and being shamed by. It’s a bit like that with morels,” she says with a laugh.
Green is not just a forager. For decades she’s run a business supplying wild mushrooms to high-end Bay Area restaurants, and she co-authored the book "The Wild Table." She says there’s a long history and appreciation of different types of morels in Europe and in the Midwest. Here, before morels became a fine-dining staple, long before European settlers came, Native Americans collected them.
“They’re absolutely delicious and ultimately terribly frustrating, and immensely scream-worthy to find,” she says.
In the coming weeks, commercial and amateur hunters will chase the burns from Northern California through the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska. Some say that because of the large number of acres burned in the West last summer, this may be a huge “burn” morel season. Lake County’s just the first stop on a morel trail.
The three of us walk through the forest, heads down, when suddenly Kevin Sadlier spots a black SUV covertly parked off the road and says, “We’ve got company,” likely a fellow mushroom hunter. Sadlier and Green both laugh, knowingly, and plan to head off in a different direction.
When we move to another spot, and come across two other foragers he knows, that’s when we find a cluster of morels poking out of needles covering the ground.
I gasp, and Sadlier says, “We’re in the promised land. They’re everywhere!” I see grown men chase each other to a morel cluster, and we spend hours scanning the hills.
We fill a paper grocery bag with morels: a respectable haul but really just for home eating. So, what’s the allure? Adventure, for one. Sadlier says he’s come across rattlesnakes, mountain lions, even bears while hunting.
“I do really enjoy eating the wild mushrooms, but I enjoy the hunt more,” he says. “There’s something about how it brings out the hunter/gatherer instinct. It’s almost a magical feeling: You go into a wilderness area, you interpret your environment, and you try your luck. If you find wild mushrooms, there’s no better feeling.”
These foragers believe the real mother lode would be higher up, inside the boundaries of Boggs Mountain State Forest, which has been closed to the public since the fire. They’re pretty frustrated that they’re restricted from this public land.
“Arbitrary and capricious,” Sadlier calls that decision.
“Idiocy,” Green says. “Now, it’ll be fine to go in there and do salvage logging, but to allow outdoors people, taxpaying Americans who pay for the parks, to walk in the woods looking for mushrooms, that’s not OK with them.”
He says 80 percent of the forest's trees burned, and his top priority is removal.
As he drives me around the black and brown hills of the forest, it looks like something out of a dystopic science fiction film. On an active logging site, equipment with mechanized arms and saws fells dead trees, strips off burnt bark and moves as much as 100 truckloads a day out to mills. Even where logging isn’t happening, Wright says, the forest is dangerous.
“Lots of trees are in danger of coming down,” he says. “The tops will start breaking out of these trees, the limbs will start breaking off and coming down with just the slightest breeze,” and burned-out stumps and roots create holes in the ground.
While Wright knows many morel hunters are familiar with forests and are eager to get on the land, he says, “We can’t interview each person to find out if they’re qualified, see if they have a hardhat, if they're familiar with hazards of forest. We’d have to do a site safety plan with each one of them. It’s just not practical.”
For now, the forest is closed to all recreational activity, and Wright hopes to have at least some portions of the forest open in the fall.
“I’ve been to many morel fire-burned areas,” says local Joe Guardado, “and there’s areas in Boggs that are beyond anything I ever saw.”
Before the fire, Guardado hiked Boggs Forest every day. He’s spent many winters foraging pounds and pounds of porcini mushrooms in the forest and around the town of Loch Lomond, where he lives. It’s a weekend getaway for Northern Californian Italian families, with resorts like Biggi’s Family Club and Italian Village swelling the population in the summer. They revere mushrooms here. Guardado introduces me to a friend, Mike Giusti, who built a shrine in his front yard that, from a distance, looks like it honors the Virgin Mary. Up close, it’s clear that it’s a porcini made of stones.
Guardado says he doesn’t forage mushrooms for money. He swaps jars of dried porcinis for hunted pheasant or duck, or wine made by the families who vacation here. Guardado is a caretaker, and he knows them all.
People like Flora and Romano Marcucci. He points to Guardado and says, “They call him the King for Mushrooms.”
Yep. In these parts, Guardado is called the King, or Mushroom Joe. He’s showing the Marcuccis where edible wild mushrooms pop out of little mounds of leaves in a yard. They’re coccolis, white mushrooms as big as my hand.
The Marcuccis ran an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, and know what to do with their haul. Flora says she’ll slice the mushrooms and cook them simply in olive oil with garlic, pepper and salt. “Let it fry, get nice and crunch. Delicious!”
They also unearth one deadly mushroom.
“Oh, that’s a death cap,” says Mushroom Joe, looking at its pimply skin.
Romano Marcucci draws his finger across his neck, ominously, saying, “No doctor will save you from that.” But all three are lifelong mushroom hunters who know what to avoid.
Mushroom Joe and I spend the afternoon in a couple burn areas hunting for morels: no luck today.
“Elusive Morchella, that’s what they call them. They’re elusive.”
And they’ll be here only after this fire. So, he’ll keep looking. But he skipped porcini season last winter ... his heart just wasn’t in it. He says he feels a tension between his mushroom-hunting passion and his love of these now-scorched hills.
“It’s what you loved and now it’s all black,” he says. “It’s not so bad because right now we’re looking for mushrooms, so I don’t have to look up that often. I’m looking down at the ground, like you’re blocking it out of your mind that it’s not there. It’s sad. It’s just real sad.”
Because, Mushroom Joe Guardado says, chasing the burn for morels hurts a little, if it’s in your own backyard.