Danger After the Storm

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Mark Chisholm is a third-generation arborist. Patience and proper equipment are key to safely cutting down a tree. The worst decision? Using a ladder to cut down any tree, he says. (Progressive Farmer photo supplied by STIHL)

In the first minutes after a heavy storm passes, the high-pitched growl of chain saws begins to echo across the landscape. “They are tremendously powerful tools,” says Charlie Hoffman, a certified arborist and account manager with outdoor power supplier Golden Eagle Distributing Corp., Trevor, Wis.

The scene after a heavy storm or tornado is one of chaos—jumbled branches, tangled wires and sheet metal wrapped around trees stripped of bark. There’s a crushed pickup, a roof torn from the barn and a 100-year-old oak laying on the house. The desire to do something, to do anything, is overpowering. Cutting trees looks like a good first step to recovery. Chain saws are the tools of choice.

A sharp saw makes quick work of storm-damaged trees. The chain rips wood at 5,000 feet per minute, or 83 feet per second, at full throttle. More than 600 cutting teeth pass by a single point in 1 second. Raked across an unprotected leg, the damage caused in that second (the time it takes to say “600 cutting teeth”) is sickeningly catastrophic. A chain saw–caused gash is followed by an average of 110 stitches, according to the U.S. Product Safety Commission.

“They are tremendously powerful tools, safely used,” Hoffman says, emphasizing “power,” once again. “But unfortunately, chain saws are treated with the same respect as a household power drill,” he adds. “Statistically, you’re not going to die [from a cut]. But you are going to be maimed.” Hoffman has been employed by chain saw manufacturer Echo, Inc., for a half-dozen years. “Having a situational awareness is the most important step,” Hoffman says. “Look for the dangers.”

Stress Loaded. Storm-damaged trees are bundles of conflicting pressures that, when wrongly relieved by an ill-placed cut, strike out with the lethality of a gunshot. Chain saw work accounts for 40,000 injuries a year, most to the upper leg area and hands. Forty to 50 people die in tree-cutting accidents each year.

It’s too easy to become a statistic. Cut without safety gear, ignore overhead hazards, toss the safety manual, fail to account for the unstoppable roll of a trunk weighing several tons, and grave injury is a moment away. The average medical cost for a chain saw cut injury is $12,000. Husqvarna sells a chain saw safety apparel kit—helmet, ear protection, chaps, gloves and protective gloves—for $149 on Amazon.com. Safety is a cheap investment.

Mark Chisholm urges patience. He is a third-generation certified arborist, working this day 60 feet off the ground among the limbs of a historic tulip poplar tree. The tree’s owner has employed Chisholm’s family-owned Aspen Tree Expert Co., in New Jersey, to do the work. Chisholm is a member of Team STIHL and is a competitive tree-climbing champion. STIHL manufactures chain saws.

Hazards Above. “First thing,” he says of the first few minutes after the storm, “look up. Mature trees are a real hazard.” Look for branches dangling up in the trees. They are called “widow makers” for good reason. They can drop suddenly to the ground, killing or injuring anyone below.

Second, look around for power lines, Chisholm says. Is the power line to the house or barn still attached? If not, where are they? How about lines running along the road or overhead, across the property? Live wires kill.

Third, make an assessment of the damage. What work can you safely do? What do you want to do but probably shouldn’t? Chisholm says the seasonal saw operator ought to work from ground level only. “Don’t mess with trees on the house,” he says. Standing on a wet roof with a running chain saw, cutting branches that may spring into your face, is just poor practice. It is better, he says, to lift trees from a house by a capable skid steer loader or a tractor with forks or grapples. The dumbest idea is cutting branches while standing unsecured to the tree on an extension ladder. It is the stuff of YouTube lore, of chain sawers falling from ladders toppled by a falling branch. The result is often less humorous, as the operator tumbles to the ground, running chain saw in hand.

Professional cutters take the time to understand the pressures of twist and compression. Here’s what they see.

-A tree bent sharply by another tree can suddenly spring up if the object holding it down is removed.

-Cutting limbs without understanding their directional forces is hazardous. Keep your body to the left of the chain saw’s guide out of the plane of the chain rotation.

-Root balls are especially dangerous. If the operator cuts through the trunk too close to the ball, the remaining trunk section and root ball can suddenly sit upright.

-A skilled operator learns to see the potential for a phenomenon known as barber chairing, when either wind, the lean of the tree or the branch load causes a quick, rising split through the trunk of a prematurely falling tree.

Splinters longer than the average man is tall fly high into the air. The barber chair gets its name from the end result. The seat of the barber chair is the partial cut made by the operator through the trunk. The back of the chair is the vertical piece left as the tree splits up the middle.

“You need to take the time to look at a tree,” says Tim Ard, of Forest Applications Training, in Rome, Ga. “Move from side to side. Look at the tree and where it might go [if it’s not already on the ground].”

*Begin At The End. The best way to begin cutting a tree already lying on the ground is to start at the butt end of the tree and work forward—while being mindful of the weight of the root ball if it is pulled out of the ground. Try not to pass by limbs as the work progresses toward the crown of the tree—unless they are supporting the trunk, Ard says.

Never cut above your shoulder, always cut with two hands and never cut without an escape route. The escape route should be clear to at least 15 feet from the tree and at 45-degree angles from the work. The goal is to put the tree all the way onto the ground, the trunk cut into manageable sections.

There should be no more than one cutter working on a tree until the tree is fully on the ground. “Try to keep the [branch] pullers away until the tree is cut. No one should be holding or pulling anything while the saw is running,” Ard says. But it is a very good idea to have an observer working with the chain sawer. He is someone who watches for overhead hazards the operator may not see.

*In Your Face. Kickback is the rapid, upward motion of the saw toward the operator’s face after it has struck an obstruction. It happens in the blink of an eye and accounts for a third of chain saw injuries. Hitting an obstruction with the top quarter of the running chain saw or with the nose of the saw are two ways kickback can occur.

Chain saws are equipped with brakes that stop the chain during kickback. A mechanical brake activates as the saw rises and the operator’s hand comes into contact with the front hand guard—which is part of the brake lever—pushing it forward.

Chain saw manufacturers Echo, STIHL and Husqvarna mount inertia braking systems onto their saws. This feature stops the chain under high levels of upward acceleration, even before the mechanical hand brake is activated.

More recently, Husqvarna has added a third, rear-mounted brake positioned just above the rear hand guard that also activates the brake as the saw rises upward. STIHL’s throttle lockout lever activates a third chain-braking feature on its saws when the right hand is completely removed from the rear handle. â¦�

Rules of the Saw

Tim Ard, owner of Forest Applications Training, offers a comprehensive list of articles describing best practices for chain saw use. Find them at his web page (www.forestapps.com) under “Tim’s Tips.” One article discusses good felling techniques. Here are Ard’s tips for felling:

-Identify Potential Hazards. Look up into the crown of the tree and identify dead limbs and hanging branches. Assess the area into which the tree will fall for hazards. Clear ground debris, live saplings and shrubs. Once the tree is on the ground, pause to look for hazards that may have developed in nearby trees.

-Determine Side or Weighted Lean. It is desirable, but not always possible, to cut from the good side of the tree. The bad side of the tree is the side to which it leans or is weighted. While standing back from the tree along the fall line, the operator should look up into the tree and draw a mental circle around the outermost limbs of the tree’s canopy. From the center of this circle, drop an imaginary plumb line to the ground. The distance from this spot on the ground to the center of the tree’s trunk gives a good estimate of the amount of weighted side lean.

-Determine Your Escape Route. Always pick a “retreat route” away from a falling tree. This escape route should be clear of ground debris and should be opposite of the direction of fall at a 45-degree angle.

-Determine the Hinge Size. To control the fall of a tree, a hinge is necessary. The hinge is the narrow strip left between the open-face notch and the back cut. As a general rule of thumb, the width of the hinge should be equal to 10% of the diameter of the tree at 4½ feet above the ground. It should have equal width across the stump. For example, a 15-inch tree should have a hinge 1.5 inches thick. The length of the hinge is also important in guiding the direction of fall. The general rule of thumb here is to set up a hinge length that is 80% of a tree’s diameter at 4½ feet from the ground. A 15-inch tree would need a 12-inch hinge.

- Establish Your Cutting Plan. After the notch and hinge are set up, the back cut should be level with the open-face notch. Always remember to finish the back cut on the good side of the tree. If this is not possible, be aware of hazards that could cause safety problems.

For more details on safely cutting down trees, go to our tree-safety video series at bit.ly/1GBeKgj


Dan Miller