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Burn Severity Assessment Using Satellite Remote Sensing



Wildland fires burn millions of acres within America's forests. Each year, wildland fires burn millions of acres of America's forests, shrub lands, and grasslands. Burn severity variation within a fire and across the nation are the result of prefire, ecosystem diversity landscape variations and changing weather during the fire: all affect fire behavior and it effects upon the landscape. Understanding such variations improves pre and post fire land management practices and requires the collection of large quantities of geospatial data. Systematic satellite mapping with calibrated algorithms can deliver reliable information about burn perimeter and variations in burn severity within a single fire, across the nation and through time.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) supports the fire science and land management communities' needs for techniques, data and map products to support cohesvie fire management, prioritization, and planning at local regional and national levels. For example, these burn severity data products can be used along with the National Elevation Dataset (NED, to identify areas of high burn severity located on steep slopes and at risk of severe erosion. These areas can then be targeted for mitigation efforts.

Mesa Verde DNBR

A fire perimeter only shows the extent of the fire and not the severity within it. Satellite data analysis was used to derive this color-coded image of burn severity on the Bircher and Pony fires. Note how the large, Bircher fire was controlled on the west by the 1996 Chapin fire and, the reduced severity within the perimeters of previous fires: Moccasin Mesa (to the south), 1972 and Morefield (east of Moccasin Mesa), 1959. These observations show that historical fires affect the behavior and intensity of subsequent fires. This information is important when planning firefighting safety zones, ie. a a previously burned high severity area can be used as a safe zone for some time because most fuels have been consumed.

Fire History

Mesa Verde 1973
Moccasin Mesa & Rock
Springs fire: 1972;
Landsat MSS, 1973
Mesa Verde 1989
Long Mesa fire; 1989,
Landsat TM 1990
Mesa Verde 1996
Chapin 5 fire; 1996,
Landsat TM 1997
Mesa Verde 2000
Pony & Bircher fires; 2000,
Landsat TM 2000
Mesa Verde 2002
Long Mesa fire; 2002,
Landsat TM 2002

A fire is a compilation of all the fire events that have occurred in an area including imagery and reports. A comprehensive understanidng nof fir ehistory can be used to support a numer of management practices:

Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity

In 2006, the MTBS program was established to map and assess all large fires that have occurred in the United States since 1984. In an ongoing collaborative effort between the USGS/EROS and the Forest Service/Remote Sensing Applications Center, over 17,000 fires have been mapped and the results are freely available to land management agenecies and the fire science reserach communities. Analysis of this national fire history improves understanding of national trends.

Remote Sensing Support for Burned Area Emergency Response Teams

Since 2003, USGS and the USFS have provided satellite-derived burn severity mapping products to meet the requirements of Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) Teams. BAER teams are mandated to quickly (2 weeks) evaluate the effects of wildfires and develop mitigation plans to protect human life and property, natural resources and to promote landscape recovery. Previously, BAER teams relied upon field or aerial sketch mapping to delineate severity patterns on topographic maps. Today, analysis of satellite imagery has largely replaced the manual methods for BAER teams.

USGS rapidly processes Landsat or other satellite imagery to enable timely generation of map products, generally less than 2 days after image acquisition. These map products allow the BAER teams to better understand the patterns of burn severity and make more precise mitigation recommendations. From 2003 through the 2012 fire season, USGS and USFS have mapped 1,200 wildfires representing 38 million burned acres in support of the BAER teams and local DOI and USFS land mangers. Over 6 million burned acres were mapped in 2012: a USGS/USFS record.

Burn Severity Map

Landsat image (left) and resulting burn severity map (right) for the West Garceau fire located near Polson, Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation. This fire burned approximately 10,000 acres in August 2012. Within the severity map, dark green is non-burn, light blue is low severity, yellow is moderate severity, and red is high severity.

NPS-USGS National Burn Severity Mapping Project

A cooperative project established around 2001 between the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to map burn severity patterns within a fire and deliver standardized burn severity map products to NPS park managers and fire ecologists. Historical or new fires are mapped upon request.

NASA ROSES Research Grant

A research grant was awarded to USGS/EROS to investigate the use of satellite systems and advanced image processing techniques to identify and map fires not otherwise documented by federal or state agencies. These "discovered" fires are generally smaller than current MTBS size thresholds but occur in large numbers and can have significant impacts at local and regional scales. Once discovered, these fires can then be evaluated as necessary to support research into fire effects and trends.

Wildfire Burn Severity Assessments from Satellite Data PDF

To view and print the PDF you must obtain and install the Acrobat® Reader, available at no charge from Adobe Systems.

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Page Last Modified: March 2012