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Remotely sensed fine-fuel changes from wildfire and prescribed fire in a semi-arid grassland

November 11, 2021

The spread of flammable invasive grasses, woody plant encroachment, and enhanced aridity have interacted in many grasslands globally to increase wildfire activity and risk to valued assets. Annual variation in the abundance and distribution of fine-fuel present challenges to land managers implementing prescribed burns and mitigating wildfire, although methods to produce high-resolution fuel estimates are still under development. To further understand how prescribed fire and wildfire influence fine-fuels in a semi-arid grassland invaded by non-native perennial grasses, we combined high-resolution Sentinel-2A imagery with in situ vegetation data and machine learning to estimate yearly fine-fuel loads from 2015 to 2020. The resulting model of fine-fuel corresponded to field-based validation measurements taken in the first (R2">2 = 0.52, RMSE = 218 kg/ha) and last year (R2">2 = 0.63, RMSE = 196 kg/ha) of this 6-year study. Serial prediction of the fine-fuel model allowed for an assessment of the effect of prescribed fire (average reduction of −80 kg/ha 1-year post fire) and wildfire (−260 kg/ha 1-year post fire) on fuel conditions. Post-fire fine-fuel loads were significantly lower than in unburned control areas sampled just outside fire perimeters from 2015 to 2020 across all fires (t = 1.67, p < 0.0001); however, fine-fuel recovery occurred within 3–5 years, depending upon burn and climate conditions. When coupled with detailed fuels data from field measurements, Sentinel-2A imagery provided a means for evaluating grassland fine-fuels at yearly time steps and shows high potential for extended monitoring of dryland fuels. Our approach provides land managers with a systematic analysis of the effects of fire management treatments on fine-fuel conditions and provides an accurate, updateable, and expandable solution for mapping fine-fuels over yearly time steps across drylands throughout the world