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Bush Fire Prediction

February 1, 2010
ABC News reports on efforts to predict bush fire behavior.  This goes into the “I’ll believe it when I see it” box for now.
I tend to be pretty skeptical of the promise of prediction just around the bend. It’s possible that this work will yield a useful tool for dealing with bush fires. But let’s not get over-excited about the potential. Other cases of prediction efforts offer some valuable lessons.
First, predicting an event such as a bush fire is a lot more like predicting an earthquake than predicting the weather. These are rare, sudden events, and predictions of their occurrence can only be useful with high accuracy and precision.
Second, predicting the behavior of a bush fire once it has started is somewhat similar to forecasting the path of a hurricane. This may be very helpful in some cases, but the outcome of the event depends far more on preparedness and the capacity of emergency services than it does on predictions. For example, predictions of Katrina were highly accurate and precise, but it was still a tragic disaster. Predictions may inform a competent response, but they do not constitute one.
This leads to point number three, which is that one should be wary of overly trusting predictions, which will never fully eradicate uncertainty. Over confidence can lead to complacency.
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