In recent years, there have been rapid improvements in both remote sensing methods and satellite image availability that have the potential to massively improve burn severity assessments of the Alaskan boreal forest. In this study, we utilized recent pre- and post-fire Sentinel-2 satellite imagery of the 2019 Nugget Creek and Shovel Creek burn scars located in Interior Alaska to both assess burn severity across the burn scars and test the effectiveness of several remote sensing methods for generating accurate map products: Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), Normalized Burn Ratio (NBR), and Random Forest (RF) and Support Vector Machine (SVM) supervised classification. We used 52 Composite Burn Index (CBI) plots from the Shovel Creek burn scar and 28 from the Nugget Creek burn scar for training classifiers and product validation. For the Shovel Creek burn scar, the RF and SVM machine learning (ML) classification methods outperformed the traditional spectral indices that use linear regression to separate burn severity classes (RF and SVM accuracy, 83.33%, versus NBR accuracy, 73.08%). However, for the Nugget Creek burn scar, the NDVI product (accuracy: 96%) outperformed the other indices and ML classifiers. In this study, we demonstrated that when sufficient ground truth data is available, the ML classifiers can be very effective for reliable mapping of burn severity in the Alaskan boreal forest. Since the performance of ML classifiers are dependent on the quantity of ground truth data, when sufficient ground truth data is available, the ML classification methods would be better at assessing burn severity, whereas with limited ground truth data the traditional spectral indices would be better suited. We also looked at the relationship between burn severity, fuel type, and topography (aspect and slope) and found that the relationship is site-dependent.
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