Improving remote sensing based boreal wildfire burn severity and risk assessment, interior Alaska


Christopher Smith

Christopher Smith, a Master’s student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is on a mission. He wants to improve assessing boreal wildlife burn severity using readily available satellite data. Wildfires are a fact of life during Alaskan summers. With climate change, their frequency, severity and duration have increased. Many of these fires are near major population centers where the wildfire smoke affects a human health — irritated eyes, impaired breathing, and worsening heart and lung conditions. Finding a way to provide accurate information about local wildfire fuel and behavior could make a significant contribution to fire hazard management.

Fire fuel information is crucial for assessing fire risk and spread. Through his involvement in an EPSCoR project, Chris produced a fuel map of the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest that is 90% accurate when compared with direct observations. He did this by including AVIRS-NG hyperspectral satellite data in his fuel maps. Similar maps based solely on Landsat data are only 30% accurate.

This summer Chris and his collaborators are doing fieldwork just outside of Fairbanks. They are assessing the severity of the 2019 Shovel Creek burn using the Composite Burn Index. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this fieldwork nearly didn’t happen. “We only found out at the last minute that we could go ahead,” says Chris. Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols is now an integral part of their fieldwork best practices.

These direct observations will be used to “teach” the classification program that Chris is using to evaluate the satellite data to better identify burn severity based on its wavelength signature. This information will be correlated with vegetation and topography data to create a burn potential map. - Kim Morris


Chris is also involved in creating a course based on his research with his supervisor, Dr, Santosh Panda and a PhD student. The course, tentatively called Remote Sensing of Wildfires, will be available online. “This course will reach people all over the country and maybe some of them will consider studying wildfires at UAF,” Chris says. At the very least, they will learn about the important research being done on Alaska wildfires.


Name: Christopher Smith, Research Assistant Professor

Institution: University of Alaska Fairbanks

Mentor: Santosh Panda,

Award: Graduate Student, Research Grant

Funding Period: 2020 to 2021