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Dr. Bob Lanford - Forestry Expert


Anyone who has a home with trees around it will someday need to remove dead or dying limbs and trees. The best managed landscaping requires trees to be pruned or removed as they grow. In addition, storms often create dangerous situations as limbs and trees are broken or bent over. I remember living on Lake Martin in Alabama during Hurricane Opel. The storm hit at night and we sat in the basement listening to all the commotion and guessing what was happening to our home. Occasionally, I would go up to the main floor with a flash light (power was toast) and peer out the windows trying to assess the damage. One time I reported to my family that the porch roof was gone. The porch faced the lake and the direction of the wind. It had rained all day before the hurricane winds hit causing the soil around the trees that separated our home from the water to soften up. At day light we found all the lakeside trees pushed over onto our roof. (Minus the porch roof which had blown over the house and mostly to our yard opposite the lake.) Like most after such a disaster, I was faced with some decisions: how to remove the trees and what to do with them. Fortunately, I was a trained chainsaw operator and I had the equipment to clean up the mess. Over the next two years, I cut the trees into logs, had a person with a small portable sawmill come in and saw them up, and rebuilt my house with some beautiful southern yellow pine lumber. It took days and weeks to get the cutting done and a lot of sweat, but there were no accidents. I was not just lucky; I was trained to do the work safely.

Felling and limbing trees involve two major dangers: First, the trees and limbs are heavy - trees can weigh tons. Second, the equipment to do the cutting is a chainsaw. While all wood-working equipment carry a degree of danger, chainsaws are probably the most dangerous. When a disaster or just some yard clearing occurs, you have a choice - hire a professional or do it yourself.

Some of us enjoy cutting wood. It's good exercise; we get the job done the way we want it - like cutting firewood the right length, and we can do it with less expense (assuming we have the equipment and know how to use it). Unfortunately, if we have a few hundred dollars, we can become chainsaw owners. Also, cranking and "driving" a chainsaw is not difficult. But owning and running a saw safely goes way beyond these simple steps. I'm not going to give you a lesson in chainsaw operation, but as I will explain later about a court case recently finished, even experienced sawyers need training. Unless you are willing to put in the effort to learn how to do it right, get your health, accident, liability and life insurance policies paid up before taking up sawing. I cringe every time a "star" on these popular TV reality shows picks up a chainsaw. Most shows depict improper and unsafe chainsawing techniques and practices.

Your other choice is to hire a professional. By hiring a person in the business of cutting trees, you are putting the responsibility of doing the job safely for you and your property in their hands. Frequently, these independent contractors are called arborists. In some states they are required to take tests to get a license to practice their services. Licenses reflect the serious nature of the occupation. Unfortunately, many states don't require proper or enough training because they don't have knowledge of or access to proper training courses. For many arborists, training involves apprenticeship under a "trained" feller who may or may not have had proper training. There is a difference between training and experience. A professional sawyer needs both. Because woods workers get a lot of experience, they are considered "trained". Experience does not necessarily mean proper training. Since accidents don't happen everyday in day to day logging, fellers get lots of experience even if it occurs in an unsafe manner. Also, timber felling in a woods environment like found during normal timber harvesting is not as critical as those conditions experienced by arboists who work around homes, buildings, cars, and more importantly people. If a tree falls in the wrong direction during a logging operation, the feller may get fussed at by the skidder operator who has to pull the tree down from another tree, but probably no one gets killed. Also, a tree felled this way or that is okay; a powerful skidder can "fix" the problem. In a closed-in set of conditions common to urban tree removal, a few degrees in felling direction can make a huge difference in property damage and possibly cause someone to loose their life.

This past year I was requested by lawyers of a family to examine a tree felling accident that killed the owner's wife. This case was in Washington state - an area very proud of its heritage of chainsaw tree felling. The ground is often steep and trees are huge which preclude using mechanical felling machines. The tradition of chainsawing is very rich in the Pacific Northwest, but again, experience does not assure correctness. In this case, the job was to remove several large Douglas firs around several storage buildings next to a home. The trees were not dead but had grown to the point they were pushing buildings over; the accident tree was 40 inches across the stump as shown in the photographs. (Figures 1 and 2) The family hired a company who had experience felling these big trees - a smart move. The subject tree weighed several tons and was over 150 feet tall. The clearing project had gone well until the final tree of a half dozen or so was felled. The "arborist" made two mistakes. The first was not adhering to the standard two tree-length safety rule which says that all bystanders should be two tree-lengths away from the tree being felled. In this case, this rule would keep bystanders back 300 feet - a football field - away from the tree.

Apparently, this tree removal project had been a lot of fun for the wife. I reviewed photos from her smart phone full of "action" shots of the two days of work. She even photographed the tree that killed her as the chainsaw operator put the face (preparation) cut in the tree. Other photos showed angles that put her in definite harms way during the entire project. If she had been required to stay at least 200 feet away from the tree she would have survived. She was not the "expert" and did not understand the dangers of tree felling. While the two tree-length rule is widely accepted and taught, it was not applied in this case. The tree fell in a direction that was not expected, and the lady did not know which way to run and ran in the wrong direction. She hid under branches of near-by trees perhaps thinking this was a safe zone, but because the tree was heavy, it crashed down through the false protection and caught her perhaps ¾ the height of the tree. She died almost instantly according to her husband.

So violation of the two tree-length rule was the first mistake. The second mistake made by the feller involved his read of the tree. A major component of professional tree felling is "reading" the tree. Many times, if not most, the tree cannot be felled in the direction the tree is leaning. In my examination, the direction he intended for the tree to fall was obvious; other trees had been felled that way; it was away from the buildings and other valuable property. If viewed from where the tree needed to land, I could see on photos that the lean direction was 90 degrees from the desired direction. It had most of its limbs on that side too, so the weight of the tree was definitely in the lean direction. (Figure 1 tells a lot about what went wrong by revealing "holding wood" in the direction the tree felled and virtually no "hinge wood" needed to control the felling direction.) A professional feller must recognize these conditions and compensate for features like tree lean. Unfortunately, this feller did not and the tree landed where it leaned. Also, that is where the lady had retreated.

In summary, when chainsaw work is needed around your home avoid operating chainsaws yourself unless you have the proper training and screen professional arborists to make sure they are truly professional and not just lucky without accidents. If they commonly work in tight places and have not had accidents, they probably know what they are doing, but don't take that for granted. Finally, remember the two tree-length rule and practice it when trees are being felled or pruned.

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Bobby L. Lanford, PhD is a Forest Operations Consultant with over 35 years of experience. Dr. Lanford is currently an Adjunct Professor at both Auburn and Clemson Universities. Dr. Lanford provides litigation support services on court cases involving Forestry Accidents, Product Liability, and Contractual Disputes. He has been retained for his expert witness services approximately 25 times. Dr. Lanford offers his expertise to attorneys for both Plaintiff and Defense.

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