If you've ever been in a zone of hurricane damage, you know the debris left behind is everywhere: a vast mass of broken building materials, toys, appliances, furnishings, sand, mud, silt, wire, telephone poles, and, most of all, broken trees (tiny leaves, branches, and huge trunks). All of this is twisted and intermingled into a mass that seems almost impenetrable—or that may sometimes actually be impenetrable, without heavy equipment at least.
In many places, dealing with the downed trees is the most significant chore. This article will focus on dealing with that task as safely and effectively as possible.
Let's start with a checklist of useful tools. You may or may not have access to stores which can sell such things, and if not, then you must do the best you can with what you have, or borrow from neighbors, until stores open again. And speaking of neighbors, they are not tools—but they are one of the most powerful resources you can have. Human cooperation is a very powerful tool, and one that tends to flourish in times of shared calamity. So make use of it!
The uses of most of these items will emerge below, where they aren't already obvious.
Safety should always be your first priority--and doubly or trebly so if access to medical care is reduced in your area. A cut that's merely a painful nuisance when you are a few minutes from an open emergency room can be life-threatening if that ER is a lengthy helicopter ride away—or even completely inaccessible.
Potential hazards are many. The debris itself is potentially full of dangers: man-made toxins, dangerous animals, poisonous plant materials, sharp or jagged materials of all sorts, and of course heavy or unstable objects. Maintain your alertness as you work, and try not to work 'blind'—that is, in areas that are visually obstructed.
Remember, too, that tool use is always potentially hazardous in itself, involving as it does the use of force, relatively massive objects, and sharp edges or points. All normal safety precautions should be taken, and all actions should be carefully thought through.
This is particularly true of the 'king tool' for clearing trees and woody debris: the chain saw. Its use multiplies efficiency and makes your clean up go much, much faster. But it is also a tool capable, in the worst case, of severing body parts. Historically, few chainsaw injuries prove fatal; according to a 2015 study by Hammig and Jones, 94% of chainsaw-related emergency room visits resulted in the patient being treated and released. However, injuries were not rare: 23,179 each year on average. And severe injuries were reported: nearly a thousand head and neck injuries each year, and 139 amputations.
If you are not already experienced in using a chainsaw, you may wish to consider whether it is a tool for you. Cleanup is more like a marathon that a sprint, and much can still be done with hand tools. And nothing will slow the process down like a serious injury, after all. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself in considering whether or not to use a chainsaw.
If many of these answers are 'no', or if you are feeling doubtful about your abilities, you may wish to avoid or limit the use of power tools. If you will be using a chainsaw, though, here are some safety tips.
It's a certainty that you will have to maintain your saw's chain. Making sure it is tensioned correctly is a frequent necessity, and it is quite common to have to reset the chain in its track for one reason or another. So let's take a look at this operation before we dive into actual chainsaw use.
Most saws have an arrangement more or less similar to the one illustrated: the chain is driven by a sprocket, and runs around a track in the periphery of the bar. Tensioning is done by adjusting a set screw--really a captive worm gear--which pushes a tab fitting into a slot in the bar. Thus, the tensioning screw moves the bar toward (or away from) the body of the saw. The whole area is secured via a cover secured by two bolts, which must be loosened to adjust the screw and re-tightened when the adjustment is complete. (Of course, resetting the chain, should it jump the track, requires removing the cover completely in order to replace the chain around the sprocket and inside the track.)
Debris gets pulled under the cover, clogging this part of the saw.
Think about where to pile what's usually termed 'slash.' Dissecting a pile of treetop is like unpacking a box: initially, things are going to take up a lot more space. Do you have space available? If so, it's worth a little thought as to how you will use that space. If not--which might be the case if you are trying to clear a smallish suburban lot, say--then you are going to have to strip branch from branch and bundle everything as tightly as possible in order to make the best possible use of the space you do have. A good supply of twine might be a useful item.
When clearing fallen trees and similar debris, reverse the cliche: this is one time you do want to 'sweat the small stuff.' Remove what can be removed by hand first. Use loppers or similar hand tools as necessary to expose, as much as possible, the larger pieces you will be sawing up later. You'll want to decide whether it's more important to conserve space, in which case you'll be cutting branches into smaller, straighter pieces to bundle, or to clear away more branches quickly, in which case you'll want to make fewer cuts and will be content to leave larger, more awkwardly-shaped pieces.
Watch out for 'the pinch.' This may sound cryptic, but as you saw through a horizontal branch, you weaken it--and as it weakens, it increasingly will tend to bend. If it bends enough, and in the wrong direction, it will trap the saw by friction as the 'kerf' you have cut in the wood closes tight on it. The trouble is that it may not be easy to know which way the branch will bend. There are basically three possibilities.
The solution is to monitor the cut, as mentioned previously. Usually, if you watch carefully, you will be able to see slight motions indicating which way the branch is stressed, and you will be able to stop cutting. Then you move to the other side of the branch, carefully align the new cut with the old, and resume cutting.
Sometimes, however, you will not be able to act quickly enough, and the saw will be trapped in the pinch. You need to have a means of freeing the chain saw: a second chain saw, a reciprocating saw, a bow saw, or an axe. (My preference is the axe, as it tends to be the quickest option, but then I grew using axes and hatchets. You may be more comfortable with one of the other options.) In some cases, a thick metal splitting wedge (with a maul to drive it) may also be an option. Whichever you choose, be careful not to damage the chain! Leave sufficient clearance between your new cut and the pinched saw.
Be careful of the weight. Tree trunks, and even large limbs, can be very heavy. Make very sure that you do not drop any of them on yourself. Also, consider weight when making cuts--the whole point of the exercise is to move the wood, so cut large pieces as short as necessary for you to be able to handle the weight.
You are going to have to move the slash at least a small distance. You can save enormous amounts of effort by doing so efficiently. The best technique is to use the 'travois' method. (Plains Indian tribes traditionally made travois--large fan-like platforms which could support their household goods, and which could be dragged by dogs or, later, horses. The word itself—pronounced 'trav-waw'—is French, since the French were the first Europeans to describe this method.)
To make your slash travois, simply lay branches on the ground with their cut ends—the butts—together, pointing in the direction in which you plan to drag them. Then loop one end of a rope tightly around the butts, several inches or a foot away from the ends. You can then drag the travois with relative ease, moving much more with each trip than you could do otherwise. (If you are not familiar with knots, you may wish to try the simple knotting method outlined in the italicized section below.)
Begin by making a small loop close to the end of rope—perhaps eighteen inches or a foot from the end, depending on the the size of bundle butt-ends you will be lashing together. The simplest knot for this is the "trucker's hitch", shown. Double the rope to make a 'U'-shaped section, then bend the U around itself and back up through the hole you have created. Then pull snug, and your trucker's hitch is complete.
Bring the free end of the rope around the butts of the branches, and through the loop of the trucker's hitch. Pull against the trucker's hitch to tighten the loop around the butts, so that they are held tightly together.
Finally, secure the lashing with a 'slip half-hitch.' (This is sometimes called by the rather cumbersome name "overhand knot with draw-loop.") It's an easier knot is easier than it sounds; in fact, it's simpler than the trucker's hitch. Start by bringing the free end of the rope around the taut loop holding the wood. Then, as you did for the trucker's hitch, make a U-loop in the free end of the rope and bring it up through the hole you just made, keeping both ends inside the hole. Tug the U-loop taut to snug up the knot, and you are done. (See illustrations.)
Why the extra loop forming the 'hitch'? Because it's just so nice when you're done dragging the slash pile. Pull the free end of that 'slip loop' out, just as you do in untying a shoelace, pull the rope free, and you are ready to head back and make the next travois.
The trucker's hitch. This variant is tied slightly differently from the description given in the text, but your finished version should look very similar.
If you are in an urban or suburban setting, you may have no option but to haul bundles to the curbside for eventual disposal, along with the non-combustible debris. Alternately, it may be desirable--if regulations allow--to burn your slash. If it is allowable and appropriate, there is still safety to consider.
Some questons to ask yourself:
Here are a few tips for efficiency. It is frustrating, but true, that slash fires are often both difficult to start, and difficult to stop. Let's consider both aspects.
Combustion needs three things: fuel, air, and a source of heat. Air is, for the most part, a given, really coming into play only with the practice of fanning, or blowing on, a small flame in order to 'nurse it' by increasing its rate of combustion. Igniting fresh slash is not easy, because the slash typically has a relatively high moisture content. Damp fuel does not burn easily. This can be overcome in two basic ways: supply more heat, or supply drier fuel. The second approach is the traditional one.
Historically, firebuilders around the world developed techniques for finding or creating tinder--fine-textured materials, either dry or containing volatile flammable compounds that are easy to light. (Examples include birch-bark and pine needles, both of which contain easily flammable compounds; dry grass; 'fuzz-sticks' made of dry heart-wood whittled to increase the surface area exposed to air; and more recently, dryer lint and scraps of paper.)
The tinder allows ignition of a flame, which can then be carefully nursed by the addition of kindling—small twigs and sticks—which burn easily and provide a bit more fuel. The objective is to gradually increase fuel gradually--too fast, and the fire will be choked off; too slow, and it will burn itself out. This process of feeding the fire is an art born of experience, since you must continual guess how massive and how dry each piece of fuel is. You must also manage the structure of the fire: if fuel is too dispersed as it burns, individual pieces will not warm each other as much as they could; but if fuel is too tightly packed, the fire will not be able to 'breathe'.
This traditional process using 'slow heat' is the safest way of starting your fire, but it is also harder for the inexperienced. The alternative is the 'brute force' method of using some sort of accelerant—call it 'fast heat.' The most dramatic example I have seen was the attempted use of flare gun to ignite a large burn pile. These flares may burn at nearly 3000 degrees Fahrenheit--intense heat by any normal standard. Yet after three attempts, the damp brush failed to ignite. The fuel load in the interior of the pile was too damp, and too dispersed. Eventually, the pile had to be lit by excavating a space where the traditional tinder-and-kindling approach could be carried out.
However, that is not to say that fires cannot be lit with accelerants. Gasoline is commonly used, because it is widely available (though not always during disaster situations such as hurricane recovery). It has drawbacks: it is polluting, and can be difficult to control and hence hazardous. And it is still harder to build a fire this way than you might think; gasoline burns rapidly, producing a burst of intense heat, but this burst is short-lived. Typically, a 'shot' of gas, by itself, will produce a few charred sticks and not much more.
This produces a frustrating and potentially dangerous situation, because the natural response will be to pour more gas directly onto the fire. But this is neither very controllable, nor safe: you can't be sure where burning fuel will end up. For example, I have personally witnessed gasoline ignite on the spout of the fuel can fueling the fire. Given that gasoline vapors are potentially explosive, can we all agree that this is not a good thing?
Less volatile alternatives may be used. Vegetable oils, fats and greases, and petroleum-based oils all provide good heat output, and can be poured or smeared onto scrap paper or other combustibles to nurse your fire.
If you must use gasoline or a similar fuel, exercise strong caution. Here are some tips.
Thanks for reading this Hub. I hope it helps you clean up your yard more safely and efficiently--always challenging when you have downed timber. Be patient, and don't overdo it.
As an example for the inexperienced, the single fallen tree that Irma brought into our yard is shown above (before and after pictures). Cutting its top--the trunk remained the neighbor's responsibility, and needed a bigger saw than mine in any case--took about 4-5 hours. Dragging and burning the debris took about as long the following afternoon. (Still remaining is the task of 'bucking' the segments we plan to keep to season for firewood. We're leaving that until we decide where to locate the woodpile.)
Many folks have already faced much worse than that, and got through it fine. With care, thought, and persistence, you will too!
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on September 24, 2017:
Thank you for the assessment and perhaps even more for your gently-phrased critique on the grounds of length. I like long-form, but I'm not the rule, and perhaps you are right. I actually considered something along the lines that you suggest, but in the past I haven't been thrilled with the way linked articles have performed, so I allowed my bias to prevail.
Be all that as it may, I'm delighted that the article helped you out (and also that you avoided injury!)
RTalloni on September 22, 2017:
Such an important post you offer here. Thanks to Irma I just last week had a near miss with a tool I wasn't used to (small job, wrong blade). It would have been all my own fault because I was not paying attention to the safety rules you mention here…thinking it was a small job, easy-peasey, right?
Well done, creatively interesting, and with quite useful information, this post could be divided into at least two articles with links between the two. Your work here is positive and I'll be looking for more of it.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on September 19, 2017:
Thanks for checking out this Hub! Hope it helped...
But please, let me know what you think. And do you have any cleanup tales to share? Love to hear 'em!