Tree care storm clean-up

By Michael “House” Tain


Storm clean-up, or storm work, as many folks in the tree care industry call it, can happen any time of year, especially with what seem to be the changing weather patterns of North America; but the late summer and fall of the year traditionally can bring some challenging weather related work to tree folk. The combination of weather patterns, depending on geographic area, that can result in thunderstorms, saturated soils, high winds, hurricanes, or even early wet heavy snowfalls can challenge the strongest of trees’ canopy structures and root systems — leaving tree crews to sail in to clean up the mess. Everyday tree work is, by nature, a physically demanding and dangerous occupation; and the addition of downed power lines, poor footing, bad driving conditions, trees down in precarious positions, or wood under unknown stresses/forces does not make the occupation any simpler or safer. In many cases, storm situations can be seen by tree folk as simply regular tree work in bad weather; and this underestimation can result in fatal consequences. Trees moved from their normal upright habit or position by storm forces are under terrific stress and strain. If care is not taken to release these forces slowly and under control, the unsuspecting tree crew may experience an explosion of woody shrapnel and objects. Driving to and from jobs is a hazard that tree crews face in the best of times, the addition of water, snow, ice, trees, power lines, and storm sight seers on the road does not make this hazard any less. Good work practices and habits, along with following the guidelines for required PPE, will help a great deal in making storm situations safer, 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, which can always be quite challenging in storm work.

Electricity: friend or foe?

Electricity is most often a friend, allowing for the viewing of “The Walking Dead,” the washing/drying of those stylish Arborwear britches, and keeping those chosen adult beverages nice and chilly. But in storm clean-up mode, tree crews need to view the electric as their foe and biggest threat. Energized conductors down on the ground are almost always part and parcel of a storm situation, regardless of whether the storm brought the lines down on its own, or the lines were brought down by trees affected by the storm. 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. Tree crews should also always be aware of the possibility of an incorrectly hooked-up generator back-feeding into the “dead” lines, and causing serious injury in a “known” safe area.

Look, listen, feel, and then do it again

Checking out and evaluating the worksite should happen every time a tree job is happening, but this evaluation/planning process is vitally important in the case of storm work. Prior to anything being cut, or even the saw started, the operator needs to examine the wood closely to try to determine what kind of pressure and forces it may be under; and from where they originate. 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. Sometimes, when a visual examination is not successful, the operator may be able to “hear” or “feel” the wood talking to them. This is not meant in a spiritual “Long Island Medium” sense, but more in the sense that stresses in the wood can literally be heard “groaning” or “cracking,” and can be felt in the wood trembling or moving in a particular direction. A “good” cut that’s completed that ends up with the trunk rolling over the operator, or a piece of wood springing back into them is not really a “good” cut — thus evaluating those forces first. While 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 would, 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. A little bit of extra time spent looking, listening and feeling for these forces, then coming up with a plan to release them as safely as possible, will not only make storm clean-up safer, but actually save time in the long run.

Tree IED

A spring pole can be thought of as an IED made of wood that has been created by the storm. While the tree IED does not have the malicious thought process behind it that an actual IED does, it will certainly cause some traumatic injuries to an unsuspecting tree worker who either releases its forces improperly, or is too close when the spring pole decides to let go. 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 he or she is 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” that the pole can begin to release its pressure into. Both of these methods require patience and the willingness to step back between cuts to watch for movement.

Storm specials

Storm work can be an excellent time to employ some the specialized cutting techniques available in the tree crew’s collective mental toolbox, such as the key notch and the knee cut. The knee cut is excellent for dealing with trees suspended on overhead obstacles, whether it is wires, other trees or houses. In effect, a notch is made on the upper surface of the fallen tree with the backcut 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.

Need a little distance here

Storm clean-up is a situation where tree crews must be “on” — paying attention to every piece and part of the situation that might affect their safety — but it is also an excellent time for crews to increase their margin of safety, or error, by creating a little distance. This is easily done through the use of commonly available tree tools such as pole saws, push sticks, pole pruners, or the all-time favorite “chain saw on a stick.” Any and all of these pieces of gear help tree folk be farther away from the “danger zone” when final cuts are being made. While using these tools will not always be possible due to specific situations, crews should always have their use in the back of their minds when doing storm work to increase distance and safety. If it is not possible, hopefully this fact will help make the crew member more aware that the closer he or she gets, the more danger present, and he or she will examine/act accordingly. Crews should also be thinking outside the box to increase distance — perhaps using line lifters to place pull lines or finding creating ways to use throw line. Nothing is better for quick hanger removal and hazard reduction than throw line; and the ragged ends left aloft can always be cleaned up in later, and safer, conditions.

Storms certainly can add hazards and complexity to an already dangerous and complicated profession, but tree crews that understand that storm work requires focus and attention to detail, along with some of the basic techniques discussed here, can clean up after a storm safely and efficiently.

Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions and Arbor Canada Training and Education He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at

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