Wildfires in forest ecosystems produce landscape mosaics that include relatively unaffected areas, termed fire refugia. These patches of persistent forest cover can support fire-sensitive species and the biotic legacies important for post-fire forest recovery, yet little is known about their abundance and distribution within fire perimeters. Readily accessible 30-m resolution satellite imagery and derived burn severity products are commonly employed to characterize post-fire landscapes; however, coarse image resolution, generalized burn severity thresholds, and other limitations can constrain accurate representation of fire refugia. This study quantifies the abundance and pattern of fire refugia within 10 fires occurring in ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer forests between 2000 and 2003. We developed high-resolution maps of post-fire landscapes using semi-automated, object-based classification of 1-m aerial imagery, conducted imagery- and field-based accuracy assessments, and contrasted these with Landsat-derived burn severity metrics. Fire refugia area within burn perimeters ranged from 20% to 57%. Refugia proportion generally decreased with increasing Landsat-derived burn severity, but still accounted for 3–12% of areas classified as high severity. Patch size ranged from 1-m2
isolated trees to nearly 8000 ha, and median patch size was 0.01 ha—substantially smaller than a 30-m Landsat pixel. Patch size was negatively related to burn severity; distance to fire refugia from open areas was positively related to burn severity. Finally, optimized thresholds of 30-m post-fire normalized burn ratio (NBR) and relative differenced normalized burn ratio (RdNBR) delineated fire refugia with an accuracy of 77% when validated against the 1-m resolution maps. Estimations of fire refugia abundance based on Landsat-derived burn severity metrics are unlikely to detect small, isolated fire refugia patches. Finer-resolution maps can improve understanding of the distribution of forest legacies and inform post-fire management activities including reforestation and treatments.
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