International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire

Fire intensity, fire severity and burn severity: a brief review and suggested usage

Jon E. Keeley

A US Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Sequoia – Kings Canyon Field Station, 47050 Generals Highway, Three Rivers, CA 93271, USA.

B Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA. Email:

International Journal of Wildland Fire 18(1) 116-126
Submitted: 15 March 2007  Accepted: 15 April 2008   Published: 17 February 2009


Several recent papers have suggested replacing the terminology of fire intensity and fire severity. Part of the problem with fire intensity is that it is sometimes used incorrectly to describe fire effects, when in fact it is justifiably restricted to measures of energy output. Increasingly, the term has created confusion because some authors have restricted its usage to a single measure of energy output referred to as fireline intensity. This metric is most useful in understanding fire behavior in forests, but is too narrow to fully capture the multitude of ways fire energy affects ecosystems. Fire intensity represents the energy released during various phases of a fire, and different metrics such as reaction intensity, fireline intensity, temperature, heating duration and radiant energy are useful for different purposes. Fire severity, and the related term burn severity, have created considerable confusion because of recent changes in their usage. Some authors have justified this by contending that fire severity is defined broadly as ecosystem impacts from fire and thus is open to individual interpretation. However, empirical studies have defined fire severity operationally as the loss of or change in organic matter aboveground and belowground, although the precise metric varies with management needs. Confusion arises because fire or burn severity is sometimes defined so that it also includes ecosystem responses. Ecosystem responses include soil erosion, vegetation regeneration, restoration of community structure, faunal recolonization, and a plethora of related response variables. Although some ecosystem responses are correlated with measures of fire or burn severity, many important ecosystem processes have either not been demonstrated to be predicted by severity indices or have been shown in some vegetation types to be unrelated to severity. This is a critical issue because fire or burn severity are readily measurable parameters, both on the ground and with remote sensing, yet ecosystem responses are of most interest to resource managers.

Additional keywords: BAER, dNBR Landsat Thematic Mapper, soil burn severity.


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