Remote mountainous regions are among the Earth’s last remaining wild spots, hosting rare ecosystems and rich biodiversity. Because of access difficulties and low population density, baseline information about natural and human-induced disturbances in these regions is often limited or nonexistent. Landsat time series offer invaluable opportunities to reconstruct past land cover changes. However, the applicability of this approach strongly depends on the availability of good quality, cloud-free images, acquired at a regular time interval, which in mountainous regions are often difficult to find. The present study analyzed burn scar detection capabilities of 11 widely used spectral indices (SI) at 1 to 5 years after fire events in four dominant vegetation groups in a mountainous region of northwest Yunnan, China. To evaluate their performances, we used M
-statistic as a burned-unburned class separability index, and we adapted an existing metric to quantify the SI residual burn signal at post-fire dates compared to the maximum severity recorded soon after the fire. Our results show that Normalized Burn Ratio (NBR) and Normalized Difference Moisture Index (NDMI) are always among the three best performers for the detection of burn scars starting 1 year after fire but not for the immediate post-fire assessment, where the Mid Infrared Burn Index, Burn Area Index, and Tasseled Cap Greenness were superior. Brightness and Wetness peculiar patterns revealed long-term effects of fire in vegetated land, suggesting their potential integration to assist other SI in burned area detection several years after the fire event. However, in general, class separability of most of the SI was poor after one growing season, due to the seasonal rains and the relatively fast regrowth rate of shrubs and grasses, confirming the difficulty of assessment in mountainous ecosystems. Our findings are meaningful for the selection of a suitable SI to integrate in burned area detection workflows, according to vegetation type and time lag between image acquisitions.
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