Wildfire behavior depends on the type, quantity, and condition of fuels, and the effect that bark beetle outbreaks have on fuels is a topic of current research and debate. Remote sensing can provide estimates of fuels across landscapes, although few studies have estimated surface fuels from remote sensing data. Here we predicted and mapped field-measured canopy and surface fuels from light detection and ranging (lidar) and Landsat time series explanatory variables via random forest (RF) modeling across a coniferous montane forest in Colorado, USA, which was affected by mountain pine beetles (Dendroctonus ponderosae
Hopkins) approximately six years prior. We examined relationships between mapped fuels and the severity of tree mortality with correlation tests. RF models explained 59%, 48%, 35%, and 70% of the variation in available canopy fuel, canopy bulk density, canopy base height, and canopy height, respectively (percent root-mean-square error (%RMSE) = 12–54%). Surface fuels were predicted less accurately, with models explaining 24%, 28%, 32%, and 30% of the variation in litter and duff, 1 to 100-h, 1000-h, and total surface fuels, respectively (%RMSE = 37–98%). Fuel metrics were negatively correlated with the severity of tree mortality, except canopy base height, which increased with greater tree mortality. Our results showed how bark beetle-caused tree mortality significantly reduced canopy fuels in our study area. We demonstrated that lidar and Landsat time series data contain substantial information about canopy and surface fuels and can be used for large-scale efforts to monitor and map fuel loads for fire behavior modeling at a landscape scale.
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