The natural role of wildland fire at Wrangell-St. Elias varies considerably across the park/preserve's geographical zones. Higher elevations lack substantial fuels, and in the coastal areas south of the Bagley Ice Field fire is nearly precluded by high humidity and precipitation. In the boreal communities of the Copper River Basin, however, as elsewhere in the Alaskan interior, fire has been a key component for thousands of years, with periodic fires having served throughout the centuries to select plants and animals that are adapted to fire-caused change.
Both black and white spruce depend on intense ground fire to clear organic layers and to thereby expose fertile seedbed. Black spruce, moreover, is at least partially dependent upon stand-replacement fire, in that its seeds become ready for germination at the peak of the Alaskan interior fire season and are released when its semi-serotinous cones are opened by canopy fire.
Even more fundamentally, fire plays a key role in the regulation of the permafrost tables. Without periodic fire, organic matter accumulates, the permafrost table rises, and ecosystem productivity declines. Vegetation communities become less diverse and wildlife habitat decreases. Fire rejuvenates and maintains these systems. It removes some of the insulating organic matter and elicits a warming of the soil. Nutrients are added both as a result of combustion and through increased decomposition rates.
Intervals between occurrences of wildland fire are longer in the Copper River Basin than in other portions of the Alaskan interior, due largely to the influence of maritime weather patterns upon this transitional region. Nonetheless, periodic fire of considerable size and intensity is the norm in this area, as evidenced by forest mosaic patterns and by local history.
Since lightning is less frequent and often accompanied by rain, humans ignite the majority of fires by for instance unattended, escaped debris burns and campfires and discarding lit cigarettes. Many of these fires ignited along road corridors, thus had the potential to threaten human life and property. NPS Alaska Fire Management encourages everyone to cautious with fire and be "firewise". Firewise concepts teach property owners and communities about pre-fire preparedness; how to substantially reduce their risk from wildfires.