Cleaning up after the storm

576XP - USA version

Families trapped in their homes. Trees falling for days. Unexpected flooding. Cleaning up an area hit by a storm represents one of the most hazardous tasks when working with chainsaws. Statistically, there are more injuries during the cleanup process than during the actual storm.

As a firefighter in a frequently storm-struck part of Mississippi, Woodman Speights has plenty of experience working with chainsaws in the tough conditions following a hurricane or other major weather event. Speights and his colleagues at the Starkville Fire Department are always ready to go to work with their chainsaws close at hand. During his latest storm-related mission, the cleanup work was crucial to get to the emergency situation – a family home hit by a large oak tree.

“We had a call about a large tree coming in through the roof of a house," Speights recalls. "But to get there we had to clear the streets from trees that had fallen all over the place.”

Speight’s crew used their chainsaws to clear the way – a task that included several challenges, including electrical fires, fallen wires and scattered debris.

“The most important thing is to stay calm," Speights says. "If you start doing things without thinking, you'll get hurt."

"And this is a very bad situation to get hurt in,” Speights adds.

Thanks to volunteers who helped remove cut-off limbs and debris, the first part of the cleanup was completed in 30 minutes, giving the firefighters access to the house. That’s when they discovered the crown of the huge tree had completely blocked the hallway, trapping the family in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

“We started by checking the limbs for tension, but there wasn’t any. So we cut off the branches, opening up a path for the family.”

“The most important thing is to stay calm. If you start doing things without thinking, you will get injured.”

-Woodman Speights, Starkville Fire Department
Images Working with chainsaws, part 2

 It's because of experiences like this that Speights continues in his chosen profession. But he warns about the dangers of amateurs attempting things they shouldn't.

“Always remember that if there’s any doubt that you will be able to handle the situation – don’t do it," Speights says. "If you feel like you might not be properly equipped or experienced enough and if it’s not a complete emergency, you should leave it to a professional.”

In the event that you absolutely must perform chainsaw work following a storm, Speights has some advice. He says to ensure you wear the proper chainsaw safety apparel at all times, and that you double-check the equipment's safety features. Be sure to take a first aid kit with you, and bring along some extra fuel and oil.

Finally, one of the most important things of all when working with a chainsaw is the presence of a companion. Avoid working alone, and be sure to clearly communicate with your team prior to beginning any work.

“We usually have a commander who assigns the team specific tasks," says Speights. "Often there are also volunteers helping out. It’s important that everyone involved communicates properly before the work starts, since it can be hard to hear anything over the sound of the chainsaw and the ear protection.” 

“Always remember that if there’s any doubt that you will be able to handle the situation – don’t do it."

-Woodman Speights, Starkville Fire Department
First aid kit Technical Extreme

Breaking the tension

One frequently occurring challenge when it comes to storm clean up is tension in fallen trees. Tension can cause unexpected movement when cutting the tree, making the limbs pop out and hurt you, or hit your equipment, or cause the trunk to move and make you stuck.

Speights explains how he attacks a fallen tree with tension:

“We start by cutting all the small branches off to get a better view of the situation. Then we take off as much weight as possible before cutting the limbs with tension. We continue to make a small cut on the tension side, to relieve a bit of tension, and slowly and in a controlled way make three to four additional small cuts until the tension is completely relieved. The important thing is to take it slowly and step-by-step.”

Note: What follows is highly dangerous work that should only be performed by trained forestry professionals.

For moderate tension: Open counter cut

  1. Cut an open directional notch on the inside of the arc of the curved trunk, to about one third of the trunk’s thickness.
  2. Remain on the inside of the arc and cut in small stages from the outside of the arc, in the centre of the notch, until the trunk breaks.

For excessive tension: Opening on the pressure side

A variation where you only saw from the inside of the arc (pressure side). Make a cut like an open directional notch with a larger opening angle. Saw a little at a time on both sides until the tension starts to release. The tension is released slowly under good control and direction. Be careful with the nose of the guide bar to avoid kickback.

How to fell different trees


1) Start by taking down the leaning tree, marked #1 in the image. The tree’s roots are probably under strain and its position is unstable. For this reason, you must never walk in the tree’s felling area. Fell the tree using the safe corner method or, if on a steep slope, with a V-cut or even deep V-cut. The tree will fall slowly and will remain attached to the stump during the fall without splitting or hitting anything.

2) Next, take down any broken trees with hanging sections, marked #2 in the image. If the hanging section of the tree is on the ground, you may be able to saw and rotate that section with a turning hook, turning strap or machine for a better felling direction. However, removal of these trees often requires heavy-duty equipment such as a crane. Trees in which the tops are hanging suspended high above the ground are exceedingly more hazardous and often require heavy-duty equipment as well. Never walk under a hanging section for any reason.


3) Next, take care of any "windfalls," marked #3 in the image. These uprooted trees should never be cut at the root end first if there is any risk that the large root section could fall over in your direction. If the entire tree must be processed with a chainsaw, it's best to start at the top. Begin by carefully limbing the tree so you can more easily see where the trunk might be under tension. Use the method described in a previous section to release any tension. Now measure the length of the first log from the top and cut the log there. Keep in mind that a windblown tree with an intact root ball may "want" to fall back into its hole. If it does so while cutting your first log, use the method described in the next section to fell the tall stump. You can also use a tractor or winch to get it in this upright position. Uprooted trees must never be left standing with a tall stump. Failure to completely fell the tree could result in it falling on a future passerby, causing serious injury or death.

Keep in mind that manually cutting a windfall tree nearer the root must only be done when there is not risk of the uprooted tree turning over. Also, when a windfall tree is cut, the section with the root ball and trunk may move sideways at great force, so you must be in a safe position. Always keep your retreat route behind you free. Stand in such a way while cutting that you will not be struck if the trunk kicks out sideways when it's cut through.

4) Finally, fell any high stumps, marked #4 in the image. Fell these high stumps in the usual manner. But beware: the log will fall quickly and may kick up at the butt end and roll erratically. Even seemingly simple felling work can be dangerous, so take your time and plan your cuts carefully.

Safety equipment when working in storm-felled forest
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