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‘Timber!’ on Target : Veteran Logger Teaches Forest Service Firefighters the Hazardous Art of ‘Tree Falling’

Times Staff Writer

Anybody can cut a tree down, says 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 from power lines, staying away from healthy trees and not injuring yourself. That’s complicated, says the wiry Oregonian.

“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,” says Dent, a tree-cutting expert who has traveled to several continents, teaching the hazardous art of “tree falling.”

Teaching Firefighters

Dent, the author of a manual for professional timber men, was at Crystal Lake on Tuesday, 6,000 feet above Azusa in the San Gabriel National Forest, teaching his craft to 14 firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service.

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“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 say, 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.

Unexpected Incidents

“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 to me.”

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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 in faded jeans, a checkerboard wool shirt and a tin helmet, agrees that trees are as peculiarly individualistic as humans. But accidents like the fatality two years ago can be avoided, with some training, he says. “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, lightning-struck or beetle infested. “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.”

In its simplest form, tree falling involves slicing a pie wedge, or “undercut,” out of the side of the trunk with a big 36-inch 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, says Dent.

But there are always complications, he suggests, 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 them suggestions.

Tapping the Trunk

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“Let’s see what it sounds like,” he says to Patrick Williams, an assistant engine foreman in the forest’s Chilao Station, 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 own 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 and 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 says, “but the angle of the dangle looks real good.”

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 says 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 says.

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 says. “It’ll take your head off.”

Big Thrill

But successfully dispatching a big one is a thrill. Seeing a big ponderosa go down where you want it gives you “an adrenalin rush,” Armstrong says.

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 120-foot dead ponderosa, with some spindly branches near the top and a corkscrew lightning scar around its trunk, on the edge of the Crystal Lake picnic grounds.

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“Lightning will literally cook a tree,” Dent says. “That’s what kills it.”

Smith must lay the trunk along a narrow alley between a paved road and a picnic table. But the equipment isn’t cooperating. His saw has a fit of “altitude sickness,” pumping weakly in the thin mountain air, and then its chain hits a nail, embedded there long ago by a camper. With a new saw, Smith cuts into a wedge of rotten wood, being careful to keep the sound wood at the corners of his undercut.

Finally, there’s a deep, resonant cracking sound, then another one, and the top of the big tree starts to move in slow motion. Smith turns off his saw, carefully pulls a pair of wedges out of the widening slice in the trunk, and steps back. He turns to watch the tree, about 30 tons of lumber, smash into the ground with a ferocious thump, shaking the earth and raising a cloud of dust.

Smith expresses himself in the spare style of the experienced woodsman."It’s kind of gratifying to see it go where it’s supposed to,” he says.


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