Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wildland fire search terms: trends and patterns

The following is a guest blog by Ph.D. student, Britt Smith.  Britt presented this research at the Association for Fire Ecology fire congress in San Antonio, Texas in November 2015.  For more information or questions about the project, you can contact him directly via e-mail.

Search engines can provide insight into how interested and engaged the public are about issues surrounding wildland fire.  Public interest in wildland fire can be influenced by several sources such as media, social networks, and peers.  News outlets often report on destructive wildfires, while often underreporting the use of prescribed fire (Jacobson et al. 2001).  With many people living in the wildland-urban interface, educating the public on wildland fire management and mitigation practices is an important goal.  Trends in search term use can help gauge public engagement of wildland fire knowledge.  Analysis of search terms can help us identify seasonal patterns of term interest.  Using search terms as indicators of interest provides another metric to examine public outreach and education efforts, and estimate future need.

We explored trends in five wildland fire search terms over the past decade and discerned existing patterns. 

We obtained search results from Google Trends using the terms: prescribed fire, prescribed burn, controlled burn, wildfire, and wildland fire.  Our search results were georestricted to the United States.  Search results were limited to the time frame of January 2004 (the earliest possible date) and December 2014.  The results from Google Tends are standardized from 0-100, with 100 being considered greater interest.  Google also excludes low volume searches, as well as duplicate searches from an individual.  We truncated search term results containing zero interest to the month following zero interest. We used a linear model to determine the trend of each search term.

The search terms prescribed fire and wildland fire show significant negative trends when truncated to exclude zero search interest.  The term controlled burn showed a positive trend when truncated.  This decrease in search term interest may be related to a reduction in the growth prescribed fire use in the southeastern United States (Kobziar et al. 2015).

Seasonality was apparent with all search terms.  Controlled burn, prescribed burn, and prescribed fire all show increased interest in the spring, which is likely related to application patterns.  Wildland fire and wildfire show increases in the summer months when wildfires are typical in the western United States.

Data Source: Google Trends (

Jacobson, S. K., M. C. Monroe, and S. Marynowski (2001). Fire at the wildland interface: The influence of experience and mass media on public knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions. Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973-2006) 29:929–937.

Kobziar, L., D. Godwin, L. Taylor, and A. Watts (2015). Perspectives on trends, effectiveness, and impediments to prescribed burning in the southern U.S. Forests 6:561–580.

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