Trees pinning down powerlines and telephone and cable is part of linework and the overtime glory hole. Depending on local practices, managing these calls can involve a few different crews to release the pressures and return the powerlines to normal. This story is about a situation that ended badly for a telephone lineman.
In the fall in our valleys and rain forest areas, the ground and hillsides get saturated after several day of rain. The root balls and systems holding our monster trees cannot hold the trees in the winds. It is nature's way of keeping our forests strong and linemen’s pockets full of money. Douglas firs are typically one to two hundred feet high and three feet around. They weigh from 35 to 50 pounds a foot, so putting that math into my lineman brain tells us the power lines get hit with about 5000 to 10,000 pounds. Anything in the path of that kind of pressure usually breaks, except guy wire or telephone strand.
Once, we got a call to address damage at a location. It was determined that isolating and applying grounds for the telephone crew would be good enough. There was more action needing our attention, as the rains and winds had been keeping us hopping for a week.
Jimmy was the crew lead for the telephone crew on this project. They had a boom truck and a basket truck. The plan was to cut off the tree branches in order to be able to use their Telelect boom truck to pick up the tree with the winch line around the fifty-foot mark from the root ball. They would cut the tree with an undercut slice and Jim was going to finish the cut off on the top.
Jim decided to climb on top of the fir tree, walk up the suspended tree where there were no branches and use the chainsaw to finish the uppercut.
Focusing on the weight and the stresses on the telephone cables, the crew was watching the tree closely. After making the cut, everything seemed fine, and Jim lowered his saw. When the boom truck took up the weight, it created a space and the roots being under strain stood the lower part of the tree up. Jim was riding a bull out of the chute, and it flung him back into the bush. He broke his pelvis and required a medical rescue team.
It would be over a year until Jim could return to normal duties.
The situation was not funny, but it did bring back memories of cartoon figures cutting the wrong side of a branch. Jim was a great and skilled leader. Overlooking the tension on the root ball tension is an easy one to miss. Once Jim was back to work, we decided to give him a nickname “Fling.”
Ground saturation creates many unusual situations where uneven root ball growth can allow lifting and resettling of trees. I once had an arcing call where when there was a breeze, the trees would lift and arc and then settle back down. Getting to the address without wind, you would see branches that were singed but in the clear. People would come out of the house and tell us that they watched the arcing. Waiting for a breeze to recreate the situation, though, was not happening. If the wind had died down, during an inspection you would see the cracks around the ground where the tree base would lift but it was safe without the wind. What would be the fix? The customer's tree was anchored temporarily until an arborist could view the situation and provide a remedy.
It did seem like a ghost call, but we were happy to get the eyewitness to help us out.
Ground saturation and high-water tables cause many hardships for line crews, something you learn more from experiences than training. Observing all the tension points and the forces involved takes a keen eye and a combination of skills to rig or make safe. Remembering about below ground tension is important. Multiple cuts to slowly release pressure and rigging for the weights involved requires knowledge and experience. If I had a dollar for every hard hat that I have seen fly off from a young lineman cutting corners, I could retire early. Removing trees at night can be tricky. Rains, storms, flooding, winds, and high-water tables change the way crews must operate to stay safe.
Fling recovered and the local story opened many eyes to the dangers we face.
Bruce Masse - Trouble Technician