Sizing Up the Burn with Satellites
By Dr. Kevin Robertson, Fire Ecology Research Scientist
This year we are wrapping up a three-year project to test a method of remote sensing of fire effects in Florida and Georgia. The method has been developed and tested in the western states, but there was some uncertainly about its use the South, where the fires are not as severe and the vegetation recovers within weeks of burning. The project was led by Josh Picotte with funding from the Joint Fire Sciences Program and field help from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The work was done on the Apalachicola and Osceola National Forests and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Our approach was to go to areas that had just burned by a wildfire or prescribed burn, measure the burn severity (change in vegetation and soil) in plots on the ground, and match our ground measurements with satellite reflectance measurements to calibrate the remote sensing method. Amounts of light reflectance matching different levels of burn severity can be different depending on the land cover, so we sampled 731 ground plots spread over different plant community types (pine flatwoods, pine sandhills, swamps), different seasons of the year, and different amounts of time since the burn.
The results showed the that method is very useful for measuring burned area and burned severity on the southeastern landscape, although the window of time to get satellite imagery before vegetation greens up is fairly narrow. This method could be very useful for estimating burned acreage in the South, which is currently not well known, and for monitoring burn severity in areas where it is a concern. We have provided three workshops to teach the method to over 50 fire and natural resource professionals from around the country, and results will be published soon in the Tall Timbers 24th Fire Ecology Conference Proceedings and other journals.