Tree Felling: Safety First

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Safety reminders can come at unexpected times. We have lived in the mountains of S. Colorado full time in our small cabin for over twenty years. During that time I have cut many dead trees for firewood. The longer we do certain tasks the more familiar we become with the procedure and the more confident we become. Recently I went to cut a dead aspen tree that was about 40’ high, dead and straight and tall. This particular tree had a clear area to fall into except for a small 15’ pine tree in its falling path. A pine tree this size should easily push aside or break off; therefore I did not pay it that much attention. That turned out to be a serious mistake and my wrong assumption cost me dearly.

There are several ways to fell trees and the most common is cutting a notch on the side it is to fall and then cutting from the opposite side of the tree to the notch hinge. I usually reserve that technique for larger trees and on smaller trees like the aspen I cut on a downward angle and almost through the tree and then use wedges to force the tree to fall where I want it to. (not a recommended method). That is the technique I chose to use with this tree. (see photo)

Everything went as planned and the tree proceeded to fall right where designated. I had plenty of time to step back out of the way putting myself a safe distance from the base of the tree. Suddenly things went very wrong. The aspen tree fell with precision into the smaller pine tree and the pine bent over holding and supporting the middle of the aspen tree. The base of the aspen shot up about 15’ into the air and then the pine tree sprung back throwing the aspen like a spear back toward me but above me. The base of the aspen hit another rather larger pine behind me and then started to roll down the limbs of the large pine tree toward where I assumed I was safe. I reacted by ducking under the falling tree to the opposite side but I did not quite make the preventive move fully.

I ended up on the opposite side of the falling tree lying parallel to it and on the ground. I have a serious bruise on my hip to show for my wrong assumption. I had made a common mistake by wrongfully assuming that this aspen tree was large enough to strip branches from the small pine tree or break it off on its way down. That mistake came very close to being fatal and I’m more aware now of not making assumptions but instead apply more calculated evaluations. I’m thankful for being able to write this blog which I am hoping will benefit others from making a similar mistake.

Look First

On any homestead it is easy to fall into routines when in reality we should spend a few moments and look more carefully at the task at hand. While 99 trees would fall exactly where we would want them to fall that doesn’t mean that number 100 will do the same. I once cut a large aspen that was dead and appeared to be solid. I cut into the tree 2” and the tree started to fall. The entire inside was rotten and I cut the only part of the tree that was holding the 18”  diameter tree up. I was able to move out of the way in that case but the shock of a large tree uncontrollably  falling was a rude wake up call.

I am normally far more cautious plus I use safety measures to perform tasks with any risk of harm. On any questionable tree I use a rope or long steel cable and a hand winch to pull the tree over safely. I also use a hard hat and safety glasses that give me more protection from falling limbs. I did not do that in this instance and a falling limb knocked my ball cap off my head and it landed several feet away. The tree itself fell approximately 12’ behind the stump which is usually a very safe zone when falling trees. I usually carry a walkie talkie with me so I have communication with Carol at the house in case of any emergency situation. I did not do that this time and therefore had to limp back to where I parked the tractor in order to get home. In short one small miscalculation can easily compound matters drastically.

There is a moral to this story and it is this: On a homestead when something that carries risk seems routine do not assume it will turn out routine. Look at it as an individual challenge and if in doubt don’t assume but instead take precautions that will insure your safety. I share this embarrassing event to hopefully help others to think the matter through before engaging in a ‘routine’ task for your own safety. I believe I am a very careful person but in this case I made two mistakes. I went ill prepared and assumed the tree was like all the others and would fall easily. Instead it became a several hundred pound projectile that could have killed or seriously injured me.

We heat our cabin with a wood stove and because of our long and cold winters we burn about 9-12 cords of firewood each year. I have been cutting down standing dead and fallen trees for over twenty years to fill this firewood need. It only takes one miscalculation to end in injury or death and I am now far more aware not to take cutting down trees for granted.

Sometimes we men seem to take things for granted and assume when we should really be evaluating the situation more carefully. When dealing with dangerous tasks that can have very serious consequences we sometimes need to give more thought to it before we jump right in. If my experience and mistake helps someone else it will have been worth the effort to write this blog and I’m just glad to be here to write it.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their experiences and sometimes mis-adventures visit their blog site

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