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How (Not) to Clean Up Woody Hurricane Debris

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I have dabbled in home improvement projects and like giving advice to others on what not to do.

Author's work

Author's work

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.

Tools and Resources

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!

Useful Tools

  • Power saws: Chain saw, reciprocating saw
  • Bow saw
  • Axe, hatchet, or maul with wedge
  • Hand cutters: Loppers, shears
  • Wedges, shims, or props
  • Rakes: Hard-tine rake, leaf rake
  • Shovel
  • Wheeled transport: Wheelbarrow/Garden Cart/Utility trailer
  • Rope, chain
  • Protective clothing: work gloves, safety glasses, work boots, earmuffs, etc.
  • Necessary auxiliaries: fuel for power tools, power for electrical tools, wrenches for maintenance, etc.

The uses of most of these items will emerge below, where they aren't already obvious.


Safety First

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.

An axe mishap from 1922.  Don't worry; there are lots of gory images from the present day out there, too.

An axe mishap from 1922. Don't worry; there are lots of gory images from the present day out there, too.

The Chainsaw: To Use or Not to Use?

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.


  • Are you physically fit? Strength, balance and coordination are all very helpful in controlling a powerful saw.
  • Do you have experience in handling other tools? This experience can help you in the constant monitoring and assessing you must do while making each cut, as well as in preparing for each cut.
  • Do you have experience in handling heavy, unstable, or awkward objects? Do you have good mechanical aptitude? As we shall see, understanding how debris is lying and where pinning points and balance points are is very important—and surprisingly tricky.
  • Can you be patient and consider carefully what will happen before you make a cut? Impulsive action is not your friend.

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.

Man in safety gear using chainsaw--note that his visor is protecting his helmet, not his face, however!

Man in safety gear using chainsaw--note that his visor is protecting his helmet, not his face, however!

Chainsaw Safety

  • Use protective gear. Work boots, gloves and eye protection, at a minimum, and hearing protection if using a gasoline-powered saw. Hard hats are a good idea; some are available with integrated face shields. There are also special work gloves to protect against chain saw cuts, and protective chaps for your lower legs. These are all worth considering if you have access to them.
  • Choose an appropriate saw. On the one hand, if your saw is too small for the wood you need to cut, at best you will have a very tedious time and your productivity will be low. On the other, a saw that is larger than necessary will fatigue you sooner, be harder to handle, and afford less control. Consider both your needs--the material you need to cut--and your skill and physical capabilities. It's also worth considering the advantages of electric and gasoline saws. I haven't tried a cordless electric, but for general household work, I prefer the electric saw for its lower price, lighter weight, and greater reliability. The cord is cumbersome and vulnerable—yes, I have sawed through my own electric cord, blush, blush!—but for me the pluses outweigh the minuses. But I do own, and use, both types.
  • Maintain your saws appropriately. Chains need periodic sharpening--and a dull saw is much more prone to dangerous kickback. You can sharpen the saw yourself, or have it done for you. Fuel needs to be fresh. Almost all gas saws have two-cycle engines, so they also require the correct mix of gas and oil. And chains need to be appropriately tensioned. Too tight, and the saw will not run correctly and will suffer undue mechanical wear. Too loose, and the chain is likely to jump the track in the bar (something likely to happen to you at some point.) You must also monitor the level of chain oil in the reservoir in order to keep your chain properly oiled. (Some saws also require you to manually dispense the oil periodically--see your saw manual for your saw's requirements.) Note that while gas saws use a special bar and chain lubricant, most electric saws use a much thinner oil, such as 30W motor oil, and will not work well with the thicker chain lube.
  • Prepare the work site. Hurricane debris is chaotic; clear away as many obstructions as you can before making major cuts. You want to have good footing—tripping with a running chain saw in your hands is not a good thing, and you want to be able to move away from heavy branches or other objects that may roll or fall toward you as you work. Small or even purely visual obstructions are worth clearing, too. Your freedom of motion as you cut is vital, and the more you can see, the better you can assess where the piece you are cutting is supported and where it is pinned.
  • Take the time to plan. Know what you expect to happen as you cut, and know what you plan to do if your expectations aren't realized. Have an escape route in mind. And don't rush!
  • Maintain your balance and your grip. Cutting is a dynamic process. Don't be distracted into overreaching, overbalancing, or losing your grip.
  • Avoid cutting with the tip of the bar as much as possible. The most dreaded saw injury scenario is a severe 'kickback' incident, in which an obstruction or 'pinch' of the chain forcibly pushes the bar (and its still-running chain) back toward the operator. This is most likely to occur when cutting with the tip of bar, and especially its upper portion. (Note that it may not be possible to avoid use of the tip altogether; if forced to cut with the tip, exercise extreme care.)
  • Position the saw safely. Do not overextend your arms, or cut with your face close to, or directly in line with, the bar. Keep your feet and legs out of the direct line of the cut, too--they are the body parts most likely to be injured in chainsaw accidents, after all.
  • Monitor the cut. Watch the progress of your cut to avoid 'pinching' the saw (more on this later), but don't forget about the position of the saw's tip. You don't want to cut into the ground, which can cause kickback. At the very least, it will drastically dull the saw teeth.
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Into every life a poorly-tensioned chain may slip...

Into every life a poorly-tensioned chain may slip...

Resetting or Replacing the Chain

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.)

Getting The Cutting Done: Practical Tips

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.

  1. If it is supported at only one end, the unsupported end will bend downward, and you should cut the branch from the top, so that the kerf will open with the sagging.
  2. It it is supported at both ends, the unsupported middle will bend downward, and you should cut from the bottom, opening the kerf.
  3. The tricky bit: If the middle is supported at both ends, but one end is pinned by another branch out past one supported end, then the middle portion may rise as cutting continues--the exact opposite of what you will be expecting. (Unless, perhaps, you took my advice to clear as many visual obstructions as you can very, very seriously! But even so, this will happen to you sooner or later.) In this case, you should be cutting from the top--but how do you know that?

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.

One of Rodin's "Fallen Caryatids", buckled under the weight of her burden.  Don't be a caryatid!

One of Rodin's "Fallen Caryatids", buckled under the weight of her burden. Don't be a caryatid!

Transporting the Slash

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.)

A slash travois in use.

A slash travois in use.

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.

Disposal Of The Slash: Is Burning An Option? (Fire Safety, Part 1)

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 questions to ask yourself:

  • Is there ground available that allows safe burning, and that you don't mind blackening semi-permanently? Mineral soil--sandy soil, for example--is safer than rich, humus-laden garden soils, which can ignite.
  • Is there fire danger nearby, such as dry grass, inflammable debris, or vulnerable structures? The last thing you want to do is create a wildfire. Consider wind conditions carefully as you think about this topic. Calm or near-calm conditions are best, and you should not burn in any wind above a gentle breeze. Consider wind direction, as well: where will the embers be carried?
  • Is your debris clean enough and free enough of contaminants that you won't be creating toxic smoke? You should never burn plastics, material finished with lead-based paints, or pressure-treated wood, for example.
  • Do you have the means to maintain control of the fire? For instance, do you have water or other materials you can use to extinguish the flames? If the water is out, it might be best to wait until you have a reliable supply once more.
This stone-and-block fireplace may not be pretty, but it does elevate fuel away from the soil.  And the charred logs show that there was lots of water to extinguish the fire when needed.

This stone-and-block fireplace may not be pretty, but it does elevate fuel away from the soil. And the charred logs show that there was lots of water to extinguish the fire when needed.

Getting the Burning Done

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.

Slow Heat

Historically, firebuilders around the world developed techniques for finding or creating tinderfine-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.

A teepee fire awaiting lighting.  The tinder is at the very center, surrounded by successively larger pieces of fuel.  You can follow this model on a smaller scale.

A teepee fire awaiting lighting. The tinder is at the very center, surrounded by successively larger pieces of fuel. You can follow this model on a smaller scale.

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.

Fire Safety, Part 2

  • Use less direct methods of lighting the fuel, such as long matches, torches or barbecue lighters to avoid being singed by flash ignition.
  • Do not add fuel directly to flames. Pour fuel onto nearby areas of the wood; if they do not ignite spontaneously, relight.
  • Be conservative in adding fuel; large and potentially dangerous flashes can result from too much gas. Additionally, excessive fuel additions will make the fire tough to control.
  • Keep fuel container well away from the fire, and recap after each use.

Thanks for reading this article. 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!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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!

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