As recent events have pretty clearly shown, the storm season is here, and with a vengeance. The autumn and winter months can bring their own unique challenges to tree work, and that’s without the addition of one or more major storm situations. Throw in a few blizzards, nor’easters, ice storms or the like, depending on geographic area, and day-to-day tree work suddenly becomes a great deal more challenging in terms of both safety and efficiency.

High winds can cause broken, jumbled masses of branches and trunks under enormous pressures, just waiting for the wrong cut to set them off. Saturated soils can cause complete tree failures, with trees on top of structures and elevated counterweighted root wads. And throughout every work site lurks the possibility of downed and energized lines waiting to be touched by man or machine. Throw in some ice and snow for good measure and an already chaotic situation becomes a slip, trip, falling and driving hazard brought to life.

Basic safety, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and safe work practices/habits can go quite a ways toward meeting the storm scenario challenge, but the situation is typically so extreme that some knowledge and training of particular techniques and methods can only help in making these storm-ravaged work sites safer and more efficient.

Canadian arborist Frank Chipps works on storm cleanup. Photo: Andrew Hordyk

Canadian arborist Frank Chipps works on storm cleanup. Photo: Andrew Hordyk

The juice, not talking about orange or cranberry juice here, more the startling and deadly electrical kind of juice. Any post-storm operations are going to involve some measure of downed lines with all the attendant hazards. Lines can be brought down by snow, ice, high winds, and fallen trees or branches.

Regardless of what brought them down, crews involved in cleaning up after a storm have to be extremely vigilant for downed energized conductors. Not only will direct contact with crew members or their equipment cause major problems, crews need to be mindful of the many ways electricity can be conducted through the ground, phone lines, chain-link fences and other seemingly “safe” objects.

Crews should also keep an “open ear” if the power has been shut off in a neighborhood, as an improperly set up generator being used by a homeowner to power their big screen TV can easily “back feed” into the dead downed lines, quickly lighting up an unaware crew member.

Look closely

Much as a carpenter is advised to measure twice and cut once, tree workers in storm situations would be well advised to look at least twice, if not more, prior to cutting any woody debris that seems to be under any amount of pressure. These additional “looks” will help the saw operator and branch managers determine not only which way the piece being cut is likely to react, but what effect that will have on the rest of the mess, and hopefully what is the safest position to be in when the pressure is released.

As mentioned in a previous column, the acronym CUT, developed by the trainers at Arbor Canada Training and Education, is an excellent technique in situations involving compression and tension forces. Compression wood is cut first, tension wood second, and “u” are in the middle.

Crew members must keep in mind and evaluate for all the possible forces acting on a branch or tree prior to making that first cut. As an example, a root wad elevated high enough will cause the tension wood to be on top of the trunk rather than beneath, as would typically expected, and once enough weight has been removed from the end can turn into quite the impressive field expedient catapult for unsuspecting crew members or their body parts.

Cutting into compression wood too far or without appropriate caution can lead to the chain becoming “pinched” if lucky, and a “pinch” kickback if not. Cutting too rapidly into tension wood can cause the entire piece to split and shatter in chaos, with shrapnel filling the air. In either case, a little more time spent looking, and then formulating a plan of action will certainly add elements of safety and control to the operation.

Spring poles in the winter

Probably one of the most challenging and dangerous items to be confronted with during storm cleanup is a spring pole. This is a branch or entire tree that has been pinned down or horizontally under immense pressure by another piece of wood or even snow or ice. The spring pole is trap waiting to be sprung on the unsuspecting tree worker and has flung more than a few saws, helmets and arborists for a distance, often with tragic results.

The first step when confronted with a spring pole is to determine the safest area in which to work on it. This may require a small amount of clearing in and of itself. Workers should try to estimate which direction the pole is going to move in if it releases prematurely and make their workstation outside of that path.

Operators would certainly be well served to try and assure themselves good footing with a minimal amount of trip hazards before even beginning work on the spring pole.

It is highly important for safety that the pressure be released from the spring pole as gradually as possible, in essence “bleeding off” the power the bent branch or tree holds. The point of greatest pressure on the piece should be estimated, and 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 pressure into. This method also requires patience and breaks between cuts to watch for movement.

In either case, a spring pole is not something to be rushed, and releasing it under as much control with as little sudden movement as possible will provide the best outcome for all concerned.

An ice storm caused this otherwise healthy branch to fail. Photo: Michael (House) Tain

An ice storm caused this otherwise healthy branch to fail. Photo: Michael (House) Tain

Specialized cutting

Several of the specialized cutting techniques, such as the key notch or knee cut, can be quite valuable in storm situations. In particular, the key notch can be useful when dealing with large-diameter wood that is under pressures and could lead to catastrophic outcomes.

In short, as the key notch has been discussed in more detail previously, the saw operator is creating a tongue, or key, that holds the two pieces of the trunk together even though the fibers have been fully severed. While the key notch does require access to a winch or some other form of mechanical advantage to pull the two pieces apart, it allows operators to set up and complete the cut, and then be at a safe distance when the pressure is released and the tree parts separated.

Cutting at a distance

Tree crews working in storm situations should take full advantage of all the equipment and tools that allow them to work from a distance whenever possible. Obviously, some situations are going to require that the operator get “up close and personal,” but the reality is that if the cut can be finished with a pole saw, the operator is going to be at a much safer distance.

In addition, simple tools such as fiberglass poles with line lifter attachments or even pole pruners with the blade taped can be used to get lines into spots – and even tie them – that would be too dangerous for a climber to get to. Throw lines and throw bags should not be forgotten in storm situations, as they can often be used to get a “widow maker” down and out of the way before beginning work on the ground.

Storm situations and cleanup obviously encompass a great deal more than the small amount discussed here, but these basic principles can be a good start toward recognizing that working after or during a storm is much more than regular tree care. Thinking about, learning and training in the situations, methods and techniques likely to present themselves this fall and winter can only help to make tree crews more efficient and safe when confronted with the real deal.