Prevention is NOT the best cure

Setting fire in the forest to prevent forest fire? Sounds nonsensical and absurd?

In 1988, a fire in Yellow National Park burned 800,000 acres, 36 percent of the total park area- the largest in the park’s history. Analyzing park policy is where the percolation theory first showed what it can do. Until 1972, Yellowstone policy required rangers to put out every small fire immediately, whether it was caused by humans (a carelessly tossed cigarette) or by nature (a lightning strike). The frequency of small fires is sometimes called the sparking rate. The park managers’ policy of reducing the sparking rate, although well-intentioned, had allowed the forest to grow past a “contagion threshold” (to be explained later). And this, unexpectedly, has made the massive outbreak in 1988 inevitable.

Today, most forestry services recognize the “Yellowstone effect” of artificially low spark rates. They allow small or medium-sized fires to burn under watch, referred as the Controlled burn policy. In some cases, if the forest is getting too close to contagion threshold, fire managers will initiate small burns, called prescribed burns, to back the forest away from the threshold.

*Opening narrative and the graph below abstracted from “Loonshots-How to nurture the crazy idea that wins wars, cure diseases, and transform industries” by SAFI BAHCALL.

When the density of trees exceeds the contagion threshold (1->2) or windspeed crosses the threshold (1->3), small fires will erupt into wild fires.

Let me first explain in my own words, what is “Contagion threshold”, in the above context. Forest fires need 2 things to spread – Density of trees and wind speed. Fire has no chance to spread in a environment of low density of trees and low wind speed. However, a fire might spread in high density of trees regardless the speed of wind. So, Contagion threshold refers to the density of trees or how much space between “pockets” of forest to determine the spread of forest fires. Of course, there are many other factors, such as humidity, ground moisture, tree species, slope gradient that affect the spread, but let’s not complicate things. A simple graph right below to illustrate the point.

This relates well to our lives in all aspects. A mother’s well intention to bring her child to the doctor on every sniffle will inevitably result in a grown-up with an impaired immune system (too weak or overactive). Since there is no chance given for the body to develop resistance to the virus, or the ability to differentiate what is a good virus, the “sparking rate” have been kept artificially low. Therefore, the existence of vaccines is to act as a stimulus for the body to develop a defence system and kickstart the immunity system, and possibly reduce the chances of us “crashing” when exposed to virus.

As a coach, the urge to correct a student’s every step could be irresistible. By not saying anything may seem like we are not attentive. But there is science behind it. Allowing the body or mind to make some mistakes, under our eyes, helps the student to develop an understanding of what is an ideal movement pattern. While it may shorten the learning process of executing a perfect technical skill if we correct a student immediately, but in long run, this student will face difficulty in learning a skill by himself. This is because he has been denied the chance to explore movement, which is key in developing self-awareness.

Take Boxing (using the classical style for explanation here) for example. The goal of boxing is to hit and not get hit. And the first thing to learn is to keep your hands up and evade punches (not the Prince “Nassem” flamboyant style). A trainer who screams “hands up, slip, weave, etc” at any opportunity, might allow the boxer to get hit in the face a lot less in training, but there is this chance that when an opponent/sparring partner finally land a clean shot, the boxer is clueless on how to regain his/her composure.

So you see, not all “wrongs” are wrong. They serve a bigger holistic ecosystem, which can self-function. Try to right things too much, and the ecosystem might just collapse.

In conclusion, we have to know when to control, what to control, and as for the rest… let nature runs its course. That way we will have the most comprehensive development, in all aspects of our life.

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