The Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) and the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Data Center produce Burned Area Reflectance Classification (BARC) maps for use by Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams in rapid response to wildfires. BAER teams desire maps indicative of fire effects on soils, but green and nonphotosynthetic vegetation and other materials also affect the spectral properties of post-fire imagery. Our objective was to assess how well satellite image-derived burn severity indices relate to a suite of immediate post-fire effects measured on the ground. We measured or calculated fire effects variables at 418 plots, nested in 50 field sites, located across the full range of burn severities observed at the 2003 Black Mountain, Cooney Ridge, Robert, and Wedge Canyon wildfires in western Montana, the 2003 Old and Simi wildfires in southern California, and the 2004 Porcupine and Chicken wildfires in interior Alaska. We generated the Normalized Burn Ratio (NBR), differenced Normalized Burn Ratio (dNBR), Relative dNBR (RdNBR), Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), and differenced NDVI (dNDVI) burn severity indices from Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper (TM) imagery across these eight wildfires. The NBR correlated best with the fire effects measures but insignificantly, meaning other indices could act as suitable substitutes. The overstory (trees in Montana and Alaska, shrubs in California) measures appear to correlate best to the image variables, followed by understory and surface cover measures. Exposed mineral soil and soil water repellency were poorly correlated with the image variables, while green vegetation was most highly correlated. The BARC maps are more indicative of post-fire vegetation condition than soil condition. We conclude that the NBR and dNBR, from which BARC maps of large wildfires in the United States are currently derived, are sound choices for rapid assessment of immediate post-fire burn severity across the three ecosystems sampled. Our future research will focus on spectral mixture analysis (SMA) because it acknowledges that pixel reflectance is fundamentally a mixture of charred, dead, green and nonphotosynthetic vegetation, soil, rock and ash materials that are highly variable at fine scales.
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