Red Alert

Experimental economics techniques provide valuable insights into wildfire responses.

To stay and fight or to pack up and leave? It's a gut-wrenching decision that confronts those living in the path of a wildfire. And, while the stakes are indisputably high, one of the biggest challenges in deciding the best course of action is doing so with often scant or conflicting information.

It's a problem that caught the attention of economists who have used the dilemma to better understand how people respond when presented with different textual representations of risk.

Researchers made use of the facilities at the Experimental Economics Lab to run three experiments in which participants were asked to decide whether to stay or leave in the face of a wildfire. To inform their decisions, subjects were provided with information represented in different textual formats. Two of the experiments added additional pressures that could be expected in an emergency. In the second experiment subjects were given just five seconds to make their decision, while in experiment three, participants were given a competing task to complete at the same time as making the decision about whether or not to stay.

One of the reports co-authors, Professor Tom Wilkening, says the research could have real-world benefits. "Both economists and individuals studying information systems recognise that individuals who are faced with uncertain choices often do not aggregate information in a way that leads to optimal decisions. So, the goal of our study was to understand how an individual's actions change as we change the way information regarding uncertainty is displayed. Our experiments were part of a larger study that aimed to develop mobile-based apps that could be used by individuals in rural areas to make informed decisions on whether to evacuate or stay when faced with bushfire warnings."

Professor Wilkening adds that recent history shows how important it is that people living in the path of bushfires are presented with information in the most effective way.

"Bushfires are a significant hazard encountered by many people living in Victoria. As we saw in the Black Saturday fires of 2009, the decision to stay or leave in the face of a bushfire is one where the consequences of choices are significant but where making a decision is made difficult by imperfect information regarding the path of fire and uncertainty regarding the consequences of each potential choice."