Tree Felling: Tree Removal Mishaps Expert Article

Trees are frequently removed by cutting near the base of the trunk; this is commonly known as Tree Felling. This form of tree removal is physically challenging and can be dangerous if the process is not adequately planned and executed. In this article, Master Arborist Christopher Larson discusses tree felling and the importance of proper tree selection, inspection, work positioning, and tree felling techniques.

Tree Felling & Tree Removal Mishaps - Expert Article

Tree Felling Investigations

Felling of trees is one of the most common tasks performed during logging and arboricultural operations. It is a difficult and potentially dangerous operation that requires the sawyer (chainsaw operator) to have knowledge of trees, be physically fit, and be trained in tree felling operations.

The most common technique used in felling a tree is a multi-step process that first involves the creation of a notch in the trunk. In properly executed cuts, the creation of the notch positions the static load of the tree such that the sawyer, through the use of the back cut and the remaining hinge, can reliably control the direction the tree will fall. However, mistakes made during felling can result in property damage or serious injury/death to the feller or bystanders.

Safe felling operations begin with proper inspection of the tree and of the conditions in an area 2.0 times the height of the tree. A proper inspection ensures the area is free of people and property and includes the sawyer’s assessment of the potential hazards, the surrounding obstacles, the wind direction and magnitude, and the tree’s characteristics.

The next step in the tree felling process is performing three precise and strategic cuts. The graphic below depicts a “conventional” notch, but other notch styles are utilized depending on the circumstances of the cut. Sawyers must make informed decisions regarding the style of notch, as well as the depth of each cut, to safely and reliably fell trees.

Conventional 3 cut felling process inage

  1. the Horizontal Cut
  2. the Sloping Cut
  3. the Back Cut

These cuts should be done by a sawyer who has been trained and wears the appropriate personal protective equipment like gloves, eye protection, hearing protection, head protection with face shield, chainsaw chaps, and steel-toed boots.

The chainsaw selected for felling trees must be the appropriate size (bar length) for cutting the subject tree and must be sharp and in good repair. Having the appropriate equipment like tree felling wedges, taglines, and other tree felling gear may assist in the efficient and safe felling of trees.

Pre-Work Inspection

The first step in felling a tree is for the sawyer to make sure the tree is a suitable candidate for the felling technique. To accomplish this, the sawyer assesses the tree for defects that could compromise the hinge wood strength or unfavorably influence the direction of the tree’s fall. Additionally, the sawyer assesses if the tree is leaning or has a slight lean and uses a level or a plumb line to determine the extent of the lean and in what direction it leans. The sawyer should plan the felling operation in the direction of the tree’s existing lean. 

It is important to note that not all trees can be safely felled.

Trees with structural defects are potentially dangerous candidates for felling. Trees with dead branches or pockets of rotten wood are also difficult to fell by conventional notch and drop operations. The sawyer should examine the base of the tree. If the base is hollow or one side of the tree has rotten wood, it may not be a suitable choice for felling operations since the rotten wood could compromise the direction that the tree falls.  

Drop Zone

The next step is for the tree sawyer to determine if the path of the tree’s intended fall is clear of obstacles and targets. No persons or valued targets should be in the pathway of a tree being felled for a distance of at least 2.0 times the height of the tree from the subject tree’s base (see Drop Zone diagram below).

Drop zone clearance image

Work Positioning

The tree sawyer must have a free and clear path to escape when the tree is being cut and when it begins to fall. The tree sawyer should make sure there are no obstacles like buildings, trees or other physical barriers that will block his/her ability to escape if the tree begins to fail during the cutting operation. The pathway of escape should be at a 45 degree angle (see photo below) in either opposite direction of the intended direction of the felling path and at least 20 feet from the base of the subject tree being felled (see photo below).

The tree sawyer should always assume that the tree will fall in EVERY possible direction and take measure to ensure nothing can be harmed regardless of which way the tree falls. The tree sawyer must plan two retreat routes to use when the cut tree begins to fall.

Pathway of escape image

Preventable and Foreseeable Damages, Injuries and Deaths

Tree felling is a difficult and dangerous operation that should only be undertaken by individuals who have the proper training and experience. A single mistake made during a tree felling operation can result in damage to property or serious injury or death to the tree feller or bystander. The safe felling of a tree includes proper tree and site inspection and conformance with applicable standards for work positioning and cutting. The vast majority of injuries and incidents can be prevented if these standards and techniques are followed.

Forensic Tree Investigations

The experts at Robson Forensic are frequently retained to investigate injuries and deaths involving tree felling operations. Within the context of a Tree Felling investigation, we are positioned to provide a thorough and comprehensive investigation by addressing every aspect of the case, from structural engineering and materials failures to specialty aspects of tree forensics. Experts involved in these matters may include structural engineers, materials scientists, or board-certified master arborists. 

For more information, submit an inquiry or call us at 800.813.6736.

Featured Expert

Christopher Larson, Board Certified Master Arborist & Tree Expert

Christopher Larson, BCMA, TRAQ

Board Certified Master Arborist & Tree Expert
Chris Larson is a Board Certified Master Arborist with over 20 years of experience in urban forestry, arboriculture, and landscape design/maintenance. He applies his expertise to a broad range of… read more.


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