Developing a Random Forest Algorithm for MODIS Global Burned Area Classification

A new publication of the Fire_cci project is available in Remote Sensing (


This paper aims to develop a global burned area (BA) algorithm for MODIS BRDF-corrected images based on the Random Forest (RF) classifier. Two RF models were generated, including: (1) all MODIS reflective bands; and (2) only the red (R) and near infrared (NIR) bands. Active fire information, vegetation indices and auxiliary variables were taken into account as well. Both RF models were trained using a statistically designed sample of 130 reference sites, which took into account the global diversity of fire conditions. For each site, fire perimeters were obtained from multitemporal pairs of Landsat TM/ETM+ images acquired in 2008. Those fire perimeters were used to extract burned and unburned areas to train the RF models. Using the standard MD43A4 resolution (500 × 500 m), the training dataset included 48,365 burned pixels and 6,293,205 unburned pixels. Different combinations of number of trees and number of parameters were tested. The final RF models included 600 trees and 5 attributes. The RF full model (considering all bands) provided a balanced accuracy of 0.94, while the RF RNIR model had 0.93. As a first assessment of these RF models, they were used to classify daily MCD43A4 images in three test sites for three consecutive years (2006–2008). The selected sites included different ecosystems: Australia (Tropical), Boreal (Canada) and Temperate (California), and extended coverage (totaling more than 2,500,000 km2). Results from both RF models for those sites were compared with national fire perimeters, as well as with two existing BA MODIS products; the MCD45 and MCD64. Considering all three years and three sites, commission error for the RF Full model was 0.16, with an omission error of 0.23. For the RF RNIR model, these errors were 0.19 and 0.21, respectively. The existing MODIS BA products had lower commission errors, but higher omission errors (0.09 and 0.33 for the MCD45 and 0.10 and 0.29 for the MCD64) than those obtained with the RF models, and therefore they showed less balanced accuracies. The RF models developed here should be applicable to other biomes and years, as they were trained with a global set of reference BA sites.