Close Call

During my years working for the Ministry of Forests I became proficient in the use of a chainsaw. The process was neither instant nor was it without incident, and I know that I gave my boss/instructor Neil Campbell more than one grey hair along the way. Classroom time in combination with hours of fieldwork was required in order to become a chainsaw person on an initial attack helicopter firefighting crew. One of the first and most important rules for falling trees is the “two tree-length” rule, which stipulates that no worker can be within two tree lengths of the faller while he or she is felling a tree. Another requires that the faller create at least two escape routes from the base of the tree so that he or she has an alternate means of escape should anything go wrong with the operation. Unfortunately, I broke both of these rules and although I live to write this article, I could have easily been killed both times.

The first instant occurred during one of my training exercises. A separate department of the Ministry of Forests had baited some large spruce trees to attract and kill spruce beetles (this was back in the mid 1980s when the nascent mountain pine and spruce beetle problems were but a shadow of what they are today). Neil was always on the lookout for opportunities to supply his chainsaw operators with falling experience so he volunteered our base”?the Northern Initial Fire Attack Crews (NIFAC)”?for the job, and that is how several of us found ourselves on the side of a very steep mountain felling bug-baited spruce trees where the average butt measured 36″. One of the trees that I was to fell was at the bottom of a small ravine that sloped steeply down the side of the mountain. Neil stood watching me from a safe distance above and I cleared out the brush from around the base of the tree. It was leaning slightly in the direction that I intended for it to fall”?down hill”?so it seemed an easy job; maybe too easy. In my exuberance to perform well for my boss (whom I respected then and continue a friendship with today) and thinking the tree an easy one, I neglected to ensure a proper escape route. I made my cuts and the tree began to fall in the exact direction that I had intended; however, there was a windfall lying perpendicular to my tree and it was bridging the two banks of the ravine, setting it about twenty feet in the air where the two made contact. With the windfall acting as a pivot, the butt of my tree tore loose from the hinge-wood and shot backward up the mountainside. I backed-up as the log shot by me only a few feet away but since I hadn’t cleared an escape path, there was nowhere to go. I can recall looking up at Neil, whose mouth gaped open nearly to the size of his bulging eyes. Then it was over- and I wasn’t smeared like a bug on the side of the ravine. From that point on, I spent plenty of time making and familiarizing myself with at least two escape routes before putting chainsaw bar to tree and Neil often reminds me of the close call that could have ended my life but didn’t.

The second incident occurred during my fourth year at NIFAC. I had operated chainsaw for two prior seasons and had been promoted to crew-boss; thus, teaching chainsaw operation had become part of my duties. At the end of a long day my pupil, who was already reasonably acquainted with felling, was about to drop a large spruce tree as he cleared out a landing area for our helicopter extrication. The tree appeared to have a lean in the direction that he wished to fell it, so the pump operator and I moved to an area opposite of the tree’s intended landing zone. We were all exhausted after a day of firefighting and I sat down on the ground, bringing my knees up to my chest in a comfortable repose; the pump operator did the same. I had my head turned away from the action as I spoke loudly to the pump operator in order that I could be heard over the noisy chainsaw and past the ear protection that we all wore. Without warning a tremendous crash shook the ground where we sat and, whirling my head around, I found that the tree had fallen so close to me that my feet could touch its trunk when I straightened out my legs. Every one of us was as white as the paper on which you are reading these words and I shook for a long time after.

The faller had cut too much of the hinge-wood away and the tree had broken off at the butt causing it to fall uncontrolled. I, in my state of fatigue and complacency, had forgotten the two tree-length rule and it had nearly cost me my life. I experienced many other scary chainsaw related incidents during my years of firefighting and private logging but the two fore mentioned brought my life the closest to its end. Now I rarely start up one of my saws without picturing those close calls, causing me to go through my mental safety check-list before and as I work.