Anybody can cut down a tree, said logger Douglas Dent. Start hacking a wedge out of the side of the trunk, and, as sure as rain falling from the clouds, the tree will come down. But try laying a 100-foot ponderosa pine out along a narrow clearing, veering away from power lines, avoiding healthy trees and not injuring yourself. That's complicated, the wiry Oregonian said.
"It seems awful simple, but, heck, I've been doing this for 20 years, and I'm just beginning to understand what it's all about," said Dent, a tree-cutting expert who has traveled to several continents, teaching the hazardous art of "tree falling."
Dent, the author of a manual for professional timber men, spent part of the spring at Crystal Lake 6,000 feet above Azusa in the San Gabriel National Forest, teaching his craft to 14 firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service.
"Whether you're cutting eucalyptus in Australia, banyans in South America, or ponderosas here, the principles are the same," he said.
The hazards of tree chopping became vividly apparent two years ago, Forest Service officials said, when an engine foreman was killed on the fire line at Stanislaus National Forest. A tree he was downing snagged another tree, which snapped back and landed on him, killing him instantly.
"In my career, there were times when I was taking down between 50 and 100 trees a year," said Gordon Rowley, acting fire manager for the San Gabriel National Forest. "Every once in while, something happens that's unexpected. . . . "
Most of the trainees were fire engine foremen or assistant foremen, who will take their newly acquired skills back to their units and teach them to others.
Dent, 42, a short, bouncy man dressed in faded jeans, a checkerboard wool shirt and a tin helmet, agreed that trees are as peculiarly individualistic as humans. But accidents such as the fatality two years ago can be avoided, with some training, he said. "Experience is a great teacher, provided you live through it," he said.
One by one, the trainees stepped up to designated trees and took their turns. These were big ponderosas, dead or mortally ill, struck by lightning or infested with beetles. "Hazard trees," Karen Fortus, the Mt. Baldy District resource officer called them. "We get some pretty gusty winds up here, which could knock them down."
Making Right Cuts
In its simplest form, tree falling involves slicing a pie-shaped cut, or "undercut," out of the side of the trunk with a big chain saw, then attacking the other side with wedges and tipping the trunk into the sliced opening. "The undercut is like the sights on a rifle," guiding the trajectory of the falling tree, Dent said.
But there are always complications, he suggested, sizing up a 100-footer. A tree can have rotten wood, or it can lean in one direction, both of which have to be compensated for, he said.
"Where's the lean?" he asks his students, peering along the line of the trunk, encouraging some discussion. "Where's the best place to dump it?"
Dent is a plain-spoken man, gently needling his students, quietly offering suggestions.
"Let's see what it sounds like," he said to Patrick Williams, an assistant engine foreman, who circles his tree, tapping the trunk with the back of an ax. ("A nice solid sound," explained a colleague, who had already downed his tree, "means good wood. A thump means you got dried wood.")
Williams slices into the big tree, sending chips and fragrant sawdust flying. His challenge is to avoid some power lines nearby as well as a stand of majestic old trees. When he pauses for a moment, Dent gives his undercut a critical look, sighting along the handle of the chain saw toward a clearing in the forest. "I think you can go a little deeper," he said, "but the angle of the dangle looks real good."
Tree Crashes Down
After 30 minutes of sawing and sighting, the old tree crashes down. "The tree went just where you wanted it to go," said the logging expert. "Isn't that wonderful?"
Dent said that the greatest hazard in "cutting the big uglies" is misunderstanding the dynamics of the cuts. "If you get those pie wedges crossing each other, the trunk can split right to the top," he said.
John Armstrong, an assistant foreman in the national forest's Saugus District, pulls out a copy of Dent's book and points to an illustration of the "barber chair," when one slice is undermined by another, splitting the tree vertically, sending a piece of the trunk backwards. "You don't want to be standing behind it when that happens," Armstrong said. "It'll take your head off."
Successfully dispatching a big one is a thrill. Seeing a big ponderosa go down where you want it gives you "an Adrenalin rush," Armstrong said.
You begin to understand why at the end of the day. Dan Smith, foreman at the forest's Redbox Station, is tussling with the day's biggest target--a dead, 120-foot ponderosa with some spindly branches near the top and a corkscrew lightning scar around its trunk.