Safety Tips for Storm-Damaged Trees

Dangerous tools in hazardous situations are a recipe for disaster, unless crews are practiced and prepared

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After a storm blows through an area, utility and municipal crews are left to wrestle wind-whipped trees with shattered limbs and trunks, structurally damaged buildings encumbered by leafy debris, and downed electric lines hissing and crackling. Doing it safely is the thing.

“The best guidance about doing cleanup around downed lines is, don’t do anything until an electric company gives clearance,” says Dr. Ryan DeSantis, assistant professor of forest ecology and management at Oklahoma State University. “No cleanup is worth messing with live electrical wires.” 

That’s just one sensible recommendation coming from the 48-year-old academic and forestry expert. Another is not to worry about getting limbs off a roof until you determine if roof joists were damaged by the falling limbs, rendering it unsafe to work on. First things first.


The largest cleanup challenge is safe utilization of chain saws and axes, ropes and cables. The very tools that facilitate the work can foster casual attitudes that lead to injury. DeSantis speaks of his own experience last summer while pulling downed trees from a forest. 

“A cable with a 5,000-pound load capacity snapped and whipped back toward our vehicle.” No one was injured, however, because the decision had been made not to let anyone stand within a hundred feet of the tensed cable. “With the amount of pressure on a cable in that situation, it could have cut off an arm or leg.”

Chain saws are the go-to cleanup tool. DeSantis urges anyone handling a saw to liberally use the chain brake. “Overuse it, if anything. If you’re moving a few feet between cuts, put on the brake. You can trip or stumble and if your finger is near the trigger, the chain suddenly is moving. Use the brake a lot.”

Don’t operate the saw at head level or above, he says, and don’t saw while standing in an unbalanced position. Such stances endanger both the sawyer and anyone nearby. This especially is true in the event of kickback — when the moving chain near the tip of the bar catches on something and is pushed back toward the operator. 

“If the bar and moving chain tip back toward you, make sure you’re not in the line of fire,” advises DeSantis. Having feet firmly planted is the first line of defense against kickback. 


A second defense is wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, maybe even chain saw chaps over the pants. “They usually are designed with Kevlar fibers to stop the chain if it kicks back into a leg.”

Leather gloves, ear and eye protection, hard hats and boots with traction soles also are recommended. Tree and brush cleanup, after all, happens in less-than-ideal conditions, oftentimes with debris underfoot, dangling branches overhead, and saws and brush mulchers operating in full whine.


The professor makes a point about having sharp teeth on a chain saw, or on the cutting edge of an axe. “If the teeth on a chain are sharp, you can do the work without exerting a lot of pressure. With either an axe or a saw, the duller it is, the more you’ll be concentrating on cutting and less on the safety things we’re talking about.” 

Damaged trees are of varying hardness and weight, notes DeSantis. So it pays to have some background knowledge and understanding of tree species. An oak tree has genuinely hard wood that resists sawing and will dull a chain saw quicker than will a softwood tree. Because an oak limb weighs more than a comparable limb from a pine or spruce tree, an oak limb falling on someone also is more apt to injure the person. 

Beware of dead limbs, too. If a standing tree in a cleanup area has dead branches amid its foliage, it indicates an unhealthy tree that is apt to come crashing down. “You need to keep an eye out for that tree.” 

When a decision is made to fell a tree, dropping it in a particular direction is more than notching it on the leaning side, the professor says. “You also have to consider the canopy in the tree, the foliage. There’s a lot of weight up in there. A tree can be leaning one direction, but all the foliage — the weight — is on the other side.”

DeSantis says chain saw safety certification courses sometimes include learning strategic planning, such as having an exit route in case a tree falls in an unexpected direction. “You should clear out a path behind you in case the trunk unexpectedly comes toward you. You’ll have some place to go.”

When damaged limbs and trunks finally are on the ground, DeSantis recommends having a “swamper,” or laborer, help move brush piles for the saw operator working the debris. “Otherwise, you might have one hand on the saw and the other one moving a limb one way or the other, instead of having both hands on the saw. I’ve been guilty of doing that.”


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