Charred landscape hampers search for missing mushroom picker in Yukon

A search continues for Darrel Russell, a B.C. man who went missing while picking mushrooms in the Barney Lake burn area near Watson Lake. 'It's a pretty dangerous area' to search, RCMP say.

Darrel Russell of Kitwanga, B.C., went missing while picking morels near Watson Lake

The Barney lake burn area, east of Watson Lake, in May 2016. (Government of Yukon)

The search for a B.C. man who went missing three days ago while picking mushrooms in a burn area near Watson Lake, Yukon, is proving to be difficult and sometimes dangerous work, according to RCMP.

Darrel Russell, 55, of Kitwanga, B.C., was last seen Saturday down Coal River Road, in the Barney Lake burn area east of Watson Lake. 

Darrel Russell of Kitwanga, B.C. was last seen on Saturday, about 17 kilometres down Coal River Road, east of Watson Lake. He's described as a First Nations man, 5'5", with a light complexion, shaved head and a stocky build. (RCMP)

An aerial and a ground search is underway, but Sgt. Cam Lockwood said so far, it's been tough.

"Everything is black, and the people in the burn picking mushrooms are black from being in the ash.

"The only thing that really sticks out is the white five-gallon pails everybody's using for putting their mushrooms in — they really stand out in that black background."

Ground search crews are also having a hard time combing the area. Lockwood says there's so much dead fall, it's like walking through a game of "pick up sticks."

"You know how they all lay across each other when you lay them on the floor?"

High winds can also easily topple dead trees, "so it's a pretty dangerous area," he said.

'Very chaotic in there'

Mushroom pickers fan out across the North every summer to collect valuable morels, which thrive in areas recently burned by wildfire.  

RCMP Sgt. Cam Lockwood said searching in a burned area is 'really dirty work,' and also dangerous, as wind can easily topple dead trees. (Government of Yukon)

Lockwood estimates there are now about 600 to 800 pickers working in the remote Barney Lake area, which is helpful because searchers have spread the word to keep an eye out for Russell.

But Lockwood said with so many people about, it can also be "very chaotic in there."

"If it was a normal area, you come across a set of footprints and it would be hopefully your lost person — and you get on it, and you stay," Lockwood said.

With so many pickers, though, "there's footprints everywhere."

With files from Leonard Linklater