Despite the long, severe winters and relatively short summers in Gates of the Arctic, wildland fires do occur. Tundra fires occur infrequently in the northernmost two-thirds of the park due to the Brooks Range and the Arctic coastal influences on the North Slope. However, the southern third of the park, made up of the boreal forest, lies within Alaska's northernmost interior lightning belt where fire is a significant, natural process.
For thousands of years, select plants and animals have adapted to periodic large and small high-intensity fires. Both black and white spruce depend on intense ground fire to clear organic layers and expose fertile seedbeds. At the peak of the Alaskan Interior fire season in June and July, black spruce seeds become ready for germination. Seeds are released when canopy fire opens the cones. Black spruce semi-serotinous cones are unique because they partially rely upon high-intensity fires in order to open.
Fire also plays a key role in the regulation of the permafrost table throughout this area. Without fire, organic matter accumulates, the permafrost table rises, and ecosystem productivity declines. Vegetation communities become less diverse and wildlife habitat decreases. Fire rejuvenates these systems. It removes insulating organic matter and elicits a warming of the soil. Combustion and increased decomposition rates return nutrients to the soil. What at first looks like devastation soon blooms into a panorama of life.
Because of the vast and remote location of Gates of the Arctic, very few fire suppression efforts occur in the park. NPS Fire Management protects human life, private property, and cultural and natural resources that warrant protection. Managers also allow fire to fulfill its role as a natural process to the fullest extent possible.