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Alaska's forest fires spark hopes of a mushroom bonanza

The furious fires that devastated millions of acres of forest in Alaska last summer may be about to deliver an unexpected harvest. Ecologists say the state's scorched lands will soon be quivering with morel mushrooms, prized by chefs around the globe.

Never mind the state's history of gold rush, fur rush and oil rush. This is shaping up to be the year of the "shroom boom" or mushroom rush. "That is what we're hoping," said Jay Moore of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Co-operative Extension Service. "It really depends on environmental factors." But what scientists do know is that where fire has scorched the earth, morels are likely to spring up. The hotter the fire and the more soot and ash there is on the ground, the more plentiful the morels. It is a happy consequence of a most unhappy season last year when wildfires consumed 6.5 million acres of forests, and state officials are hoping a plethora of morels will offer financial relief to the region's inhabitants.

As temperatures climb, the push is on to get everyone prepared. Mr Moore is setting up workshops to help potential pickers on how to proceed and the state government is pitching in with guidance on how to harvest the mushrooms. Because they are such a delicacy, especially in French cooking, the demand for morels is enormous. They are also notoriously difficult to cultivate on farms.

For that reason they can fetch as much as £53 a pound (450 grams). In New York, fans of good gastronomy will pay about £9for just two ounces of the fungus flesh (57g).

There is a lot to learn for would-be morel hunters becausethey are unlike other mushrooms in many ways. First, the must identify them correctly. They are usually conical in shape, resemble a sea sponge, with many ridges and pits, and are hollow and extremely fragile.

And just where in the charred forests they will spring up is anyone's guess, said Tish Wurtz, an ecologist. These, in other words, are tricky mushrooms. Unlike other fungi, they do not grow on decaying vegetation, but more often on open patches of ash-covered terrain. There are so many different kinds of fungi growing in Alaska that some have not even been named. Picking the wrong kinds of mushrooms could, of course, lead to stomach pain or worse. The effects on health can be quite severe

Michael Kuo, also of the University of Alaska, has issued guidelines to anyone heading to the woods. His simple rule of thumb was: "When in doubt, throw it out," he said. A red tinge to the flesh is a certain sign of trouble. "If it ain't hollow, don't swallow," he added.

Morels grow across most of America's northern states and are honoured by spring festivals in many. But if the forecasts of morel-mania in Alaska are true, the rush may soon be on to catch a plane, mushroom basket in hand, to Fairbanks.