Danger: Beware Climbing During Storm Cleanup

Following a storm, climbing to clear away fallen trees presents a clear and present danger at every turn. Photo courtesy of Arbor Masters Tree & Landscape, an accredited, 21-year TCIA member company based in Shawnee, Kansas.

This is the first in a two-part series on storm cleanup. Part two goes beyond climbing and addresses pre-storm preparations, working with other companies and more.

On a good day, climbing is a challenge. On a bad day, it’s hazardous. But following a storm, climbing to clear away fallen trees presents a clear and present danger at every turn.

Just about universally, the tree care professionals we spoke with for this article say that the jumble left in the wake of a storm or other natural disaster often presents a number of huge challenges. Trees and parts of trees, as well as other storm debris, are in a countless variety of conditions – for climbers, no two situations are ever the same.

The reason, they say, is that trees are no longer in their natural, upright condition. They can be upright, true, but unstable. Other trees can be resting on them. They may be fallen or partially fallen onto downed power lines (often still live), onto buildings and/or vehicles and across roadways. Broken tree parts dangle above.

Then, depending on the storm or natural disaster and the response time of the tree crew, environmental conditions still can be in a state of flux, with rain, snow, sleet, ice, wind and soggy and unstable ground conditions, not to mention other emergency crews working the area.

Climbing just rose to a new level requiring all the skill sets, experience and safety training a crew can muster.

There are two schools of thought in this situation, each based on professional experience:

  1. Avoid climbing if at all possible, opting instead for mechanized solutions.
  2. Realize that climbing cannot be avoided every time, so carefully plan each job and use your best crews.

Kevin Caldwell, founder and owner of Caldwell Tree Care, an accredited, 22-year TCIA member company based in Roswell, Georgia, is not a big fan of climbing after a storm if it can be avoided.

“I’ve done 29 major storm events, some right here in town and some with serious traveling involved for our crews,” he says. Those include three major events in just the last two-and-a-half years. To do the job properly and safety, Caldwell is convinced one has to “become mechanized.”

“I see a lot of people doing a lot of crazy things,” he affirms. “After a major event, trees are more horizontal than vertical and branches and tree parts have a lot of pressure on them. The Achilles heel in cleanup is getting a grasp on what the pressure points are and utilizing leverage with machines,” he maintains. “Sometimes we do cribbing or propping under a tree, then use that as a lever to hold up the fallen tree while we take out the brush very carefully.

“One of the things that alarms me is access to trees … climbing on trees, on houses and on a truck’s headache rack scare me, frankly,” Caldwell confesses. “Our methodology always – or as much as possible – involves one or more pieces of equipment, such as small-to-large cranes, and, if we have to, using skid steers to stabilize a tree before it gets worked off a house. That’s critical!” he maintains.

Other words of caution from Caldwell involve overloading a crane. “That includes cutting pieces too big with no control on them. Also, in my opinion, you should not use a truck’s headache rack for reasons other than to access your equipment. Some people use an aerial-lift bucket truck to help lift pieces of trees off houses. This is completely wrong, with a few exceptions, those being bucket trucks generally used in the utility business that are made for some limited lifting. Otherwise, a bucket truck is not made for anything other than to put a person in to perform work.”

Caldwell does note that a lot of trees can be removed without cranes, but he warns that, “Understanding the limitations of your equipment and personnel is very important. You have to have a safe working environment, especially in the wake of a storm. If you have a man on a tree that’s resting on a house and nothing to tie into but the tree, and the tree always has the possibility of moving, that’s not a safe environment.

“A safe work plan is critical, noting where the load is on a fallen tree so as to not put yourself or any crew member in jeopardy,” he says, “There is a situation called a barber chair. This is when there is a lot of pressure on a tree and someone makes a cut and the tree breaks while being cut. Part of the tree can come up and hit the saw operator in the face, strike a saw or eject a worker. That’s why it is so important to use proper techniques for notching, propping and tying off.”

When at all possible, avoid climbing and use equipment such as a bucket truck or a crane to access storm-damaged trees and limbs. Photo courtesy of Arbor Masters Tree & Landscape.

Talking about Panama City, Florida, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Michael in October 2018, Caldwell says he had 33 people on site, acknowledging there were times, indeed, when there was no other option than to get into a position where it was safe to climb. “More often than not, though, we could bring in a cherry picker and rappel off the machine or house or an adjacent (undamaged) tree, or sometimes tie off two trees to create a trapeze. We have been able to do that with trees 150 feet apart … something solid to tie off to, but not ideal.”

One storm veteran who has spent many weeks helping at numerous “ground zero” storm sites is Walter Patenaude, a 15-year tree care professional, climber and climbing foreman for Country Landscapes and Tree, LLC, a six-year TCIA member company based in Ashford, Connecticut. He calls himself a working foreman and general foreman when all the crews are together. His job – “to make sure everyone works safely and productively.”

Patenaude concedes he has a lot of storm experience, including the now-famous ice storm that landed a solid punch in his own backyard during TCI EXPO in Hartford, Connecticut, in November 2011. “Cleaning up damaged trees after a storm is a very different animal versus regular tree work,” he maintains. “There are a lot more obstacles to contend with. Trees are resting on high-tension lines, so the challenge is to safely remove branches on the wires.”

Country Landscapes and Tree crews use two aerial lifts to work on damaged trees in an ice storm. Ice creates extra weight on branches, which means climbers have to be very cautious about what they can and cannot do, says Walter Patenaude. Photo courtesy of Country Landscapes and Tree.

If you must climb into a damaged tree, Patenaude says, “Because there are broken branches in the trees you are climbing, you need to figure out how to work without damaging things or people around you or getting hurt yourself. That’s number one,” he contends.

Arguably the most common problem in the field during storm cleanup – and a dangerous one any time it occurs, but especially in the post-storm jumble – is the unusual pressure on branches. Power saws tend to get pinched. Fortunately, he says, “that tends to damage the saw more than the worker,” and is why numerous extra chain bars for the saws are loaded aboard the company trucks when heading to a storm site.

In cases where a tree has pinned a power line to the ground, especially the high-tension lines, Patenaude says one of the first things to do is to figure out how to safely anchor the wire down low. This is to avoid a situation where, when the tree is being cut away, thousands of pounds of pressure won’t release all of a sudden and (have the rebounding wire), in his words, “take out a worker.”

“Ice on trees is always challenging,” Patenaude continues, contributing not only to slippery and awkward conditions but also to “the extra weight on branches, which means climbers have to be very cautious about what they can and cannot do.

“The last major storm I worked last winter included getting a tree away from power lines covered in ice,” he recounts. “I was in the air. The wind was still blowing as I cut and was blowing the tree behind me into the tree I was working on. Both had broken branches.” He says work had to be timed around the wind gusts. He was working at night with one colleague in a bucket nearby and at least one person on the ground holding floodlights.

“When climbing after a storm, you obviously have to do it as safely as possible. Trees are uprooted. Many will have trunk breaks.” Patenaude says he usually will opt to work off a healthy tree to get into a broken tree and not climb into the broken tree because of its potential instability.

Most of the time, Patenaude adds, he works on high-line transmission lines in the woods or distribution lines along the roadside, so there are no issues with working from buildings. Regardless of the site, “I highly recommend against working off the roof of trucks or ladders, which provide more possibilities to slip, especially in rain or ice.

“In my opinion, climbing can be done safely if it is done correctly, and that is typically tied into a healthy tree after inspection, having correctly rigged gear and using an experienced ground crew,” Patenaude maintains.

When strong winds blow along the southern coast of the U.S., leaving behind a mess that leads on the evening news, there is a pretty good chance that Erwin Castellanos, Sr., president of Champions Tree Preservation, a 33-year TCIA member company based in Houston, Texas, is already on the ground attending to business.

“Storm-damage relief is one of our specialties,” Castellanos says. “It is not uncommon to have seven or eight storms, including a heavy hurricane, every year, all the way from Mississippi to Louisiana to Florida.” In the last three years, he has taken his crews as far as Connecticut to cover ice storms.

Castellanos goes heavy on equipment and says he has a reputation for tackling big jobs. “The equipment we take into a storm area is every possible thing – cranes,loaders, skid steers, bucket trucks – anything and everything that is available and can be used in those circumstances,” he says. “They are all part of the answers that go into storm pre-prep,” he maintains.

An Emmons Tree & Landscape Service crew works a fallen tree from a bucket truck. Workers must pay attention to the stability of the tree and be careful when cutting limbs under pressure. Photo courtesy of Emmons Tree & Landscape Service.

When it comes to attacking the problem of each downed tree, Castellanos says that, after determining if nearby wires are dead, “The first thing to do is to make sure there is access (for equipment, which will determine which type is best in each situation), and then to make sure the tree is safe to work on.

“Even if it is safe to climb on, it is important to remember that trees may have been split or cracked or have large broken limbs hanging,” he notes. “Once the crew determines it is safe, then proceed cautiously.

“Most yards are torn up by the storm,” he observes, “so we try to access each site with bucket trucks or cranes as much as possible. In fewer than 30% to 40% of storm responses do we do actual climbing. That way we minimize the risk to the crews.” He adds that, because of the damage to the grounds, his crews have more freedom in how they rig and drop material; it’s virtually impossible to do further damage.

If one browses the internet, it is easy to find reports of incidents during storm cleanup of problem encounters, such as snakes (some poisonous) and stranded family pets and possessions, including broken homes and furniture in broken trees. To be sure, they all are safety threats. Castellanos has heard of these anecdotes and has a story of his own.

“Many trees that are damaged in storms are older and larger. Many will have wasp nests or beehives. That can be a big challenge – to be in a tree and realize you have wasps or bees. We had one situation with a climber in a tree early in the morning. The bees got stirred up. Fortunately, the climber got down, but he was stung. We’ve seen that more than once and have learned to approach those trees in the evening, after bees and hornets have settled down.”

As much as Castellanos favors using mechanical equipment, he says, “Sometimes you just cannot avoid rigging. In those situations where we cannot access with a crane or bucket, we assign our most experienced person, because we have to rig under very difficult circumstances and exercise

Shawn Emmons, president and climber at Emmons Tree & Landscape Service, LLC, a 13-year TCIA member company based in New Milford, Conn., recalls one local storm in 2010. (How he handled 787 calls in 14 hours will be covered in Part 2 of this article.)

Although Emmons and his crews were “running night and day,” he says they opted “not to do residential sites at night,” because they felt it wasn’t safe.

“Safety is key in this kind of situation,” Emmons declares, “because it’s 100 times more dangerous than a normal work day. Just getting down the road is a challenge.

“I think the biggest challenge in climbing is that there is usually a lot of damage way in the top of the trees, and much of it hanging,” he says. “This storm was a macroburst with straight-line winds. That left everything leaning one way, many trees and debris leaning together and all of it above your head.

“Because the focus was on safety, we did not feel comfortable climbing,” Emmons maintains. “We used a crane as much as we could. Every crew had a backup climber to go up if a climber got in trouble.”

Up to the time of that storm, he says, “I’d always walk by backyard lifts at TCI EXPO thinking I did not want one. At the end of that month I bought one. It was a decision based purely on the safety of our climbers.”

The crack in this storm-damaged tree is just one good reason not to climb it without taking extra precaution, such as load binders around the stem. Photo courtesy of Champions Tree Preservation.

Emmons recommends, “If there is a safe way to do the job with a lift or crane, go that route. Sometimes the job has to be climbed; there is a need. But make sure to have a backup climber on the ground for rescue if necessary. Make a plan on the ground before anyone goes up, and be in radio contact all the time. On jobs you’ll find after a storm, I suggest two climbers and one or two more ground crew, but I run crews of four or five.

“Make sure, also, that you have a safe tie-in point with another solid tree (not the damaged one), and make sure it is load tested. We do not climb unless we all know it’s good,” he adds.

The take-away from all of this is that storm-cleanup veterans try to avoid climbing as much as possible in a disaster environment, preferring any number of machines to get the job done safely. But there are times when climbing cannot be avoided. And in that case, safety must remain the top priority.

Part 2 of this article, to run in TCI in September or October 2019, will cover crew and equipment pre-preparations as well as dealing with the unexpected on site and collaborating with other TCIA member companies.

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