We evaluated the utility of the composite burn index (CBI) for estimating fire severity in Alaskan black spruce forests by comparing data from 81 plots located in 2004 and 2005 fire events. We collected data to estimate the CBI and quantify crown damage, percent of trees standing after the fire, depth of the organic layer remaining after the fire, depth of burning in the surface organic layer (absolute and relative), and the substrate layer exposed by the fire. To estimate pre-fire organic layer depth, we collected data in 15 unburned stands to develop relationships between total organic layer depth and measures of the adventitious root depth above mineral soil and below the surface of the organic layer. We validated this algorithm using data collected in 17 burned stands where pre-fire organic layer depth had been measured. The average total CBI value in the black spruce stands was 2.46, with most of the variation a result of differences in the CBI observed for the substrate layer. While a quadratic equation using the substrate component of CBI was a relatively strong predictor of mineral soil exposure as a result of fire (R2 = 0.61, P < 0.0001, F = 60.3), low correlations were found between the other measures of fire severity and the CBI (R2 = 0.00-0.37). These results indicate that the CBI approach has limited potential for quantifying fire severity in these ecosystems, in particular organic layer consumption, which is an important factor to understand how ecosystems will respond to changing climate and fire regimes in northern regions.