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Title: Burn severity in Araucaria araucana forests of northern Patagonia: tree mortality scales up to burn severity at plot scale, mediated by topography and climatic context
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Plant Ecology
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  1. Burn severity, which can be reliably estimated by validated spectral indices, is a key element for understanding ecosystem dynamics and informing management strategies. However, in North Patagonian forests, where wildfires are a major disturbance agent, studies aimed at the field validation of spectral indices of burn severity are scarce. The aim of this work was to develop a field validated methodology for burn-severity mapping by studying two large fires that burned in the summer of 2013–2014 in forests of Araucaria araucana and other tree species. We explored the relation between widely used spectral indices and a field burn-severity index, and we evaluated index performance by examining index sensitivity in discriminating burn-severity classes in different vegetation types. For those indices that proved to be suitable, we adjusted the class thresholds and constructed confusion matrices to assess their accuracy. Burn severity maps of the studied fires were generated using the two most accurate methods and were compared to evaluate their level of agreement. Our results confirm that reliable burn severity estimates can be derived from spectral indices for these forests. Two severity indices, the delta normalized burn ratio (dNBR) and delta normalized difference vegetation index (dNDVI), were highly related to the fire-induced changes observed in the field, but the strength of these associations varied across the five different vegetation types defined by tree heights and tree and tall shrub species regeneration strategies. The thresholds proposed in this study for these indices generated classifications with global accuracies of 82% and Kappa indices of 70%. Both the dNBR and dNDVI classification approaches were more accurate in detecting high severity, but to a lesser degree for detecting low severity burns. Moderate severity was poorly classified, with producer and user errors reaching 50%. These constraints, along with detected differences in separability, need to be considered when interpreting burn severity maps generated using these methods. 
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    In recent years, there have been rapid improvements in both remote sensing methods and satellite image availability that have the potential to massively improve burn severity assessments of the Alaskan boreal forest. In this study, we utilized recent pre- and post-fire Sentinel-2 satellite imagery of the 2019 Nugget Creek and Shovel Creek burn scars located in Interior Alaska to both assess burn severity across the burn scars and test the effectiveness of several remote sensing methods for generating accurate map products: Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), Normalized Burn Ratio (NBR), and Random Forest (RF) and Support Vector Machine (SVM) supervised classification. We used 52 Composite Burn Index (CBI) plots from the Shovel Creek burn scar and 28 from the Nugget Creek burn scar for training classifiers and product validation. For the Shovel Creek burn scar, the RF and SVM machine learning (ML) classification methods outperformed the traditional spectral indices that use linear regression to separate burn severity classes (RF and SVM accuracy, 83.33%, versus NBR accuracy, 73.08%). However, for the Nugget Creek burn scar, the NDVI product (accuracy: 96%) outperformed the other indices and ML classifiers. In this study, we demonstrated that when sufficient ground truth data is available, the ML classifiers can be very effective for reliable mapping of burn severity in the Alaskan boreal forest. Since the performance of ML classifiers are dependent on the quantity of ground truth data, when sufficient ground truth data is available, the ML classification methods would be better at assessing burn severity, whereas with limited ground truth data the traditional spectral indices would be better suited. We also looked at the relationship between burn severity, fuel type, and topography (aspect and slope) and found that the relationship is site-dependent. 
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