Locations within forest fires that remain unburned or burn at low severity—known as fire refugia—are important components of contemporary burn mosaics, but their composition and structure at regional scales are poorly understood. Focusing on recent, large wildfires across the US Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington), our research objectives are to (1) classify fire refugia and burn severity based on relativized spectral change in Landsat time series; (2) quantify the pre-fire composition and structure of mapped fire refugia; (3) in forested areas, assess the relative abundance of fire refugia and other burn severity classes across forest composition and structure types. We analyzed a random sample of 99 recent fires in forest-dominated landscapes from 2004 to 2015 that collectively encompassed 612,629 ha. Across the region, fire refugia extent was substantial but variable from year to year, with an annual mean of 38% of fire extent and range of 15–60%. Overall, 85% of total fire extent was forested, with the other 15% being non-forest. In comparison, 31% of fire refugia extent was non-forest prior to the most recent fire, highlighting that mapped refugia do not necessarily contain tree-based ecosystem legacies. The most prevalent non-forest cover types in refugia were vegetated: shrub (40%), herbaceous (33%), and crops (18%). In forested areas, the relative abundance of fire refugia varied widely among pre-fire forest types (20–70%) and structural conditions (23–55%). Consistent with fire regime theory, fire refugia and high burn severity areas were inversely proportional. Our findings underscore that researchers, managers, and other stakeholders should interpret burn severity maps through the lens of pre-fire land cover, especially given the increasing importance of fire and fire refugia under global change.
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