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Fire Ecology, 2006
Volume 2, Issue 2

Ecological and Sampling Constraints on Defining Landscape Fire Severity
Author: Carl H. Key
Pages: 34-59
DOI: 10.4996/fireecology.0202034

Ecological definition and detection of fire severity are influenced by factors of spatial resolution and timing. Resolution determines the aggregation of effects within a sampling unit or pixel (alpha variation), hence limiting the discernible ecological responses, and controlling the spatial patchiness of responses distributed throughout a burn (beta variation). As resolution decreases, alpha variation increases, extracting beta variation and complexity from the spatial model of the whole burn. Seasonal timing impacts the quality of radiometric data in terms of transmittance, sun angle, and potential contrast between responses within burns. Detection sensitivity candegrade toward the end of many fire seasons when low sun angles, vegetation senescence, incomplete burning, hazy conditions, or snow are common. Thus, a need exists to supersede many rapid response applications when remote sensing conditions improve. Lag timing, or timesince fire, notably shapes the ecological character of severity through first-order effects that only emerge with time after fire, including delayed survivorship and mortality. Survivorship diminishes the detected magnitude of severity, as burned vegetation remains viable and resprouts, though at first it may appear completely charred or consumed above ground. Conversely, delayed mortality increases the severity estimate when apparently healthy vegetation is in fact damaged by heat to the extent that it dies over time. Both responses dependon fire behavior and various species-specific adaptations to fire that are unique to the pre-firecomposition of each burned area. Both responses can lead initially to either over- or underestimating severity. Based on such implications, three sampling intervals for short-term burn severity are identified; rapid, initial, and extended assessment, sampled within about two weeks, two months, and depending on the ecotype, from three months to one year after fire, respectively. Spatial and temporal conditions of sampling strategies constrain data quality and ecological information obtained about fire severity. Though commonly overlooked, such considerations determine the objectives and hypotheses that are appropriate for each application, and are especially important when building comparative studies or long-term reference databases on fire severity.

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