Monday, December 20, 2010

Step 2: Getting Rid of Dangerous Trees and The Ongoing Quest for Firewood

If you read a post of mine from earlier this year called "The Big Move" you would have read a story of toil and despair about how I moved a shed from one side of my yard to the other so that I could make way for a new shed to use for firewood storage. This is a short continuation of the overall project which "The Big Move"was pivotal in completing. This weekend, while all you normal people were resting at home, out at church or making the last dash for holiday shopping before the big day, I was happily ending the lives of 20 maple trees in my backyard.

As I mentioned before, this all started with my desire to build a wood shed in a specific, out of the way spot in my yard. After removing the existing shed, I decided to wait for winter so that I could cut down the corkscrewed and slanted maple trees which were growing over that area. Not only did their slant and the soft soil pose an immediate threat to the shed I wish to build, but they are also choking out many young evergreen trees and within two more years, would have been tall enough to damage my house if they fell in a windstorm.

The recent weeks of unrelenting rain we went through made this a little less than an ideal day, but being eager to make headway, I thought I should take advantage of the sunshine while I still could. The trees would be wet, but not sticky with sap or heavy with leaves (though they are formidably heavy, even without).

My main chainsaw is Husqvarna 51 that my dad recently gave to me, I only asked to borrow it, but he hasn't cut down any trees in years, so he just gave it to me instead. I went out to buy a new chain for it and got a carry case while I was out (if you ever transport a chainsaw, you'll know that keeping the mess off your truck's upholstery is a serious chore). The case was for a Stihl, but cost half what the Husqvarna case would cost, so I guess plastic is just expensive in Sweden. The saw has a 51cc engine which is powerful for it's size and a 20" bar and chain. My secondary chainsaw is a Poulan Pro 260 which has a 40cc engine and an 18" bar and chain.

I used the Husqvarna 51 to cut all the trees down, and the Poulan to do most of the limbing and bucking once the trees were on the ground. There are a lot more opportunities to get your chain stuck while taking off limbs and the Poulan is just not strong enough to go through a tree of considerable size, where the Husqvarna slices through trees feel like I'm carving turkey, with a lot more sawdust.

The two most dangerous problems you will generally run into when felling a tree are when the tree doesn't finish falling, such as when it's caught on something (usually other trees) or when the tree falls or starts to fall in the wrong direction. In the 20 trees I cut down, I couldn't help but run into these problems at least a couple of times.

In my opinion, the more immediately dangerous of the two problems is usually the tree falling in the wrong direction, specifically when there is something in one direction that you don't want to inadvertently destroy. In my case, however, I positioned the notch so that if the tree did fall the wrong way, it would land in a clear area without hitting the house.

Everyone is probably fairly familiar with the principals of felling a tree. You look at the variables which will make a tree fall in a particular direction (hopefully that is the direction you want, or at least a directly that will work), then you notch the tree on that side going far enough through to encourage the tree to fall to one side, but not far enough to cause the weight of the tree to pinch your bar and trap your chainsaw inside. Once you have made the notch by making two angled cuts, you then cut through the opposite (back) side until the tree begins to fall. This makes the tree fall away from you and your chainsaw. 

In the case of this tree, it didn't have any apparent lean at all, but split into three large trunks half way up, so it was especially heavy at the top (a classic characteristic of many maple trees). I did have some difficulty making the notch on this tree since it was on a steep hill, but I guess that the notch I made was just not big enough to convince the tree to fall down the hill towards my creek. When I cut almost half way through the tree, it began to lean very slightly to the rear, not enough to trap my chainsaw, but enough that I could see it wanted to fall in the other direction.

These are the moments which take some critical thinking. If I continued cutting, it would almost definitely trap my chainsaw, adding a thrilling element of added danger to the already complicated situation. If I tried to cut through the back without using a notch, or tried to make a new notch on the back side using my first cut, I would also be likely to pinch my bar, trapping the chainsaw. In both scenarios, there was no way to guarantee that the tree would fall in the right direction anyway, since it was only just barely leaning backwards from my first cut. A tree trunk spinning and falling in any direction would be very dangerous.

I decided that the tree was still strong enough that I could make a new notch on the "back" of the tree, about 18" up the trunk from my first cut. Then I could cut through from behind and get the tree to fall toward the house. This could have been done lower than my first attempt as well, but I felt like there would be less pressure above my first cut and therefore less of a chance at pinching my bar and it would lower the chance that the pressure from the falling tree would be just enough to break apart what was left of my first cut, sending chunks of wood in all directions. The operating principal in that assumption was that it would be falling off of my first cut instead of with it (this assumption was correct). The tree came to the ground with ease and is now resting in a location which actually makes it easier to limb.

The main reason that I feel as though this type of problem is considerably less dangerous (though still dangerous enough) than a tree which is caught on other trees is that, if you catch it soon enough, falling backwards is much easier to control or correct since the variable forces are limited. If I really wanted to, I could have strung up my 2-ton puller and pulled the tree in the direction I wanted it to go, and I could have done so easily and with plenty of time while the tree stood strong.

I ran into the other problem three times, but was able to solve them all with relative certainty. In the case of my first stuck tree, it was about a 13" tree which became caught in the tops of some nearby, younger trees, which kept the cut trunk resting on the stump at an angle. I first tried to winch this off, using the trunk of a larger tree I had cut down a few minutes before. The winch came close to freeing the top of the tree, but I just couldn't get it far enough to pull the tree down. In my next attempt I made a new cut in the stump, leaving a little more space for the trunk to fall. This caused the trunk to fall off the stump, but was not enough momentum to free the tangled tops. Now having the base of the trunk touching the ground, I had a better angle, so I made a new notch in the top side of the trunk and cut upward from the bottom a little, then went back to the notched top and cut the rest of the way through. The base fell away and the tree finally came lose and landed on the ground.

The danger in that type of situation is that so many variables could bring the tree down and the addition of a spin or roll caused by the branches could land the tree just about anywhere. A strong wind or surrounding branches finally giving way could cause the tree to come down at any moment.

Luckily, the other two "stuck" trees I ran into were much easier to fix, both were falling down my ravine, and when they got stuck, they were at such an angle that they were already almost to the ground. In both cases the tops simply got caught in the branches of the millions of other maple trees on my property. One of them was just barely pinned to the stump it was cut from, so I used a sledge to smash the end off. Since I never had to enter the path of the falling tree, I'd call that one the safest.

The other one, however, was part of a cluster of tree trunks that grew out of the same root system, Since it was on the outside and I only had one more trunk to cut in that cluster, I decided to let the weight of the last falling tree push it down the rest of the way. I notched the next trunk in the right direction, made the cut and backed away as one tree knocked the other down like a bowling pin. Another case where careful thinking allowed me to make everything safe again, without putting myself in the path of any serious danger.

Aside from those adventures, the rest of the trees went down quickly and smoothly, landing exactly where I wanted them and without any problems. Some of the trees were as small as six inches, and a few were as big as about eighteen, but the average tree was about nine to ten inches in diameter. You would think that taking out so many like this would have a huge impact in my backyard, but when you look at the first picture, you'll see that I would have to clear about 100 small maples before there was a major difference.

This picture shows where nine of the 20 trees fell, directly into my backyard.

This pictures shows how close the very tops were to being tall enough to hit the house. As I mentioned before, in just two more years they would have hit the house when they came down.

This is a picture of the large tree which decided to fall back towards the house.

Here is a limb which broke under it's own weight from the force of the fall down into my ravine.
 You can't see the depth in this picture, but the trunk of that tree is about 15' below the stump I took the picture from.

This is the pair of trees in which I used one to knock the other down since it didn't fall all the way.
 This is the base of the same tree, if you look closely at the moss you can see water droplets pouring off. The ground was so wet that this stump was pouring out water.

This is another large limb which broke under it's own weight when it crashed down into my ravine. I'll get lots of good firewood out of this one, I just have to figure out an easy way to get it all back up the hill.

I have a few more maple trees that I would like to take out on my property, but since I took care of the ones which posed any type of danger to my house or shed, I don't think I'll be taking down quite as many at one time in the near future.

One of my secondary goals in thinning the trees was to make room and give light to the young evergreen saplings which are struggling to grow under the thick canopy. This should give them some space for now, most of my future felling will revolve around even more space for them, but this will be enough for now.

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