Wildland Fire


Photo by Richard Kahn Park Volunteer


Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. Both boreal forest and tundra are subject to fires. The most frequent and largest fires occur in the park's forested areas, located mainly in the Kobuk Preserve, where plant communities include fire-prone black and white spruce. Fires are less frequent in the northern tundra dominated portions of the park. This is due to the lack of vegetation to burn in the rocky or sparsely vegetated alpine tundra of the Brooks Range, and the increased precipitation from the arctic coastal influence of the North Slope.

As a fire burns across a landscape - some areas are lightly burned and other areas may be severely burned. Burn severity impacts post-fire vegetation and which plant species come back after a fire. If burn severity is low or moderate, the above ground plants may be singed or burned, but much of the vegetation will be able to resprout quickly from roots and stems. However, severe fires burn deeper into the organic soils which may kill off the underground root structure of some shrubs an herbaceous plants. Therefore plant reproduction may be more dependent on seed establishment or deep rooted plants. White spruce colonizes mineral soil seedbeds after intense ground fires and black spruce is partially dependent upon fire activity for reproduction. Aspen and birch trees can resprout after low severity fires, but may seed in after a high severity fire.

Changes in vegetation due to fires, in turn, affect wildlife distribution and habitat use. Patchy fires create a mosaic of habitats frequently used by snowshoe hares and martens, while moose often browse on resprouting willow, aspen or birch after fires. Small mammals such as voles often thrive in recently burned areas, creating large colonies in the remaining duff and feeding on new vegetation. Caribou, on the other hand, may tend to avoid recently burned areas lacking sufficient lichen for winter forage. Ultimately these fire related changes to wildlife habitat and therefore animal distribution in the park affects subsistence users who rely on the availability of these animals.

Long term monitoring of fire effects like the number of fires, fire acreage, and affects to vegetation will help scientist and land managers understand ecological change and the relationship between fire and the landscape. Fire is a "Vital Sign" for the Arctic Network Inventory and Monitoring Program (ARCN).

Information gathered from research and monitoring will be used to:

  • Determine trends in fire frequency (number of fires/year), average fire size, maximum fire size, and total area affected by fire.
  • Determine the trends and variability in burn severity on fires larger than 300 acres.
  • Determine the effects of fire and burn severity on vegetation species composition (species and % cover), vegetation structure (tree diameters and heights), and ground cover of varying vegetation types (% cover and depth).

Fire History of National Parks in Alaska

A map of historical fires in and around national parks in Alaska, from 1940 - present. More recent fires are styled with 'warmer' colors, with red indicating fires from 2010 - present.

Last updated: February 17, 2016

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 30
Bettles, AK 99726


(907) 692-5494

Contact Us