By Michael “House” Tain
Although storm damage can happen any time of year in most places, the late summer and autumn can be particularly problematic with possible hurricanes, thunderstorms, and early snowfall. Tree care is challenging and hazardous on the best of days, but throw in possible downed power lines, wind-thrown trees, inclement weather, and wood under unknown forces, and the crew’s pucker factor should go way up. Unfortunately, storm situations can often be viewed as “just another day at the branch office,” and this can be a dangerous, if not fatal, mistake. The forces that trees thrown over by wind or snow load are under are enormous; and blithely wandering in to cut away can release them in a catastrophic fashion. Even the simple act of driving to the work site can be hazardous in storm situations due to water, ice, or snow, without even the consideration of closed roads and energized conductors. Good work practices and habits, along with following the guidelines for required PPE, will help a great deal in making storm situations more safe. But some basic knowledge of what to look out for, along with some specific techniques or methods, will not only help with safety but also efficiency — always a problem in the chaos of storm work.
Electric is bad
Now, electric is not always bad; after all, how would one keep up with the Kardashians without it? But in storm situations, it should be first and foremost on every tree crew member’s mind. Downed lines are almost invariably a component of storm clean-up, whether they were brought down by ice, snow, high winds, or trees themselves. Examining the work site closely for energized conductors must be a priority before any work is started in a storm situation. Crews must also keep in mind that a line downed away from them may reach their worksite through other conductors such as chain link fences, metal curbing, or even “harmless” phone or cable lines. The ground under a crew’s feet can even conduct electricity for a distance given the right soil conditions and voltage. In addition, homeowners using incorrectly set-up generators can cause “back feed” into their house drop, which, in turn, is “pumped up” in volume by transformers, reenergizing lines the tree crew may have “known” to be dead.
Examination ain’t just a test
Examining and evaluating the work site for downed lines is not the only examination that needs to take place in storm situations. Any woody debris that is about to be cut in a storm situation needs to be examined very closely to determine what kind of pressure and forces it may be under; and where they originate from. Not only will this examination help figure out how and where to cut, but also where things are going to move once severed, and where a safe place to be is while cutting. The two primary forces present will be compression and tension; and, as mentioned in previous articles, an excellent way to deal with these particular forces is by using the acronym CUT developed by the instructors of Arbor Canada. Compression wood is cut first, Tension wood last, and “U” are in the middle. The forces acting on the particular lead, branch, or trunk may not be readily apparent or obvious, so personnel need to look closely to find the forces, but also try to predict their effect on the wood and the whole piece. A successful cut of a branch that leads to the trunk rolling over the operator’s leg or sweeping back into their body is really not all that successful. Although the dangers of compression wood and tension wood should be known to all chain saw operators, the additional pressure of storm-downed trees can add to their impact. Not only can the chain become stuck or pinched by cutting too deeply into compression wood, it can also create a “pinch” kickback. Tension wood, or wood “stretched” almost to the breaking point will have the opposite effect if cut into too deeply, shattering and splitting in fractions of a second as all the force is released at once. Taking the time to look closely for these forces and developing a plan to release them as under control as possible will make for a safer storm clean-up day.
Natural booby traps
The spring pole is, in effect, a booby trap created by the storm, just waiting for an unsuspecting crew member to improperly release its pent-up forces. It may be a branch or an entire tree that has been pinned down by another tree or the weight of snow/ice. When it springs free it will take saws, helmets, jaws, and whatever else might be in its path for quite a ride (if the rider is still conscious, that is). As with the examination of forces discussed earlier, the first step is figuring out where the forces are and what’s going where when the force is released. This examination will help show the safest place from which to work, which, in turn, may require some cutting and clearing to prepare. As part of this process, the saw operator should try to judge the path of the pole if it breaks free early, and take steps to make sure they’re not in that path. Good footing and eliminating tripping hazards should be a key part of any ground saw operation, but are particularly important when dealing with something as “touchy” as a spring pole. The best way to release the incredible pressure on a spring pole is as slowly and gradually as possible. The point of greatest pressure on the piece should be estimated, then the pressure “bled off” by different methods on the compression side. One method involves “gnawing” away at the compression side of the pole horizontally — in essence shaving off small amounts of fiber and creating a very elongated shallow notch. The operator should step back between cuts to watch for movement, and, if any exists, let the pole move at its own pace to release the pressure. Another method involves a series of small shallow cuts on the compression side, once again creating a “weak spot” into which the pole can begin to release its pressure. Both of these methods require patience and the willingness to step back between cuts to watch for movement.
Special cutting for special situations
Some of the specialized cutting techniques discussed in other articles can be very helpful in storm clean-up — in particular, the key notch and the knee cut. The knee cut is excellent for dealing with trees suspended on overhead obstacles, whether it be wires, other trees or houses. In effect, a notch is made on the upper surface of the fallen tree with the back cut underneath, and the tree “felled” away from the obstacle. The key notch, while gear and set-up intensive, is very useful when dealing with big wood under a lot of pressure. In short, a key or tongue is formed between the two sections of the tree or piece that keeps it stable though completely severed. This key can then be pulled apart from a safe distance through the use of a winch or mechanical advantage.
A little distance is a good thing
Storm situations not only require the utmost care and attention from tree crew personnel, but also may require the use of some “distance” tools such as pole saws, push sticks, pole pruners, or the “chainsaw on a stick.” All of these tools allow actions to be taken or completed from a safer distance, thereby keeping the operator out of the dangerous and most exposed zone. The reality is that while cutting from a “distance” won’t always be possible, it is the safer option and should be considered. If it is not possible, hopefully this fact will help make the crew member more aware that the closer they get, the more danger present — and they will examine/act accordingly. The use of tools that may not seem obviously applicable should also be considered; placing a line with a “line lifter” or throw line keeps workers out of the danger zone, and may help reach areas not otherwise accessible. For quick and dirty hanger removal, nothing beats a well placed throw line, with the understanding that the nice finished pruning cuts can come later.
Tree work is hazardous in the best of weather — storm situations only increase the danger. But a crew that understands the basic principles, and employs some of the techniques and methods discussed here, will be better prepared for the stormy weather that may lay ahead.
Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Photo: Frank Chipps of Alberta working on a storm-thrown tree in Ontario.
Photo by Andrew Hordyk