Picking a Saw

As a wildland firefighter and faller, I am frequently asked about chainsaws: Which ones are better? What bar length should I use? What kind of chain should I buy? What brand is really the best? What tools should I have on the truck? These are all great questions, but it is important to consider the overall context with any purchase. This article will try to answer some of these questions, and maybe pose a few for the prospective wildland chainsaw buyer.

Major players

There are a lot of really good saws out there and this article is not a recommendation of one brand versus another. If the saw is going to be used for wildland fire, the brands most commonly used are Stihl or Husqvarna. The main reason for this is when you are out on a large fire the supply unit generally only carries parts for these two saws. They can order just about anything, but who has time to wait?

Product Specs

As for chainsaw sizes, most common are those around six horsepower with a displacement of around 76 cc. The bottom line is you want enough horsepower to drive the chain around whatever length of bar you want to run. Too much bar and not enough horsepower and you could find yourself with a saw that no longer has enough torque to cut well. When this happens, you end up spending too much time underneath the tree, which increases your time in harm’s way.

Bar size is another question that has a ton of variables. Ultimately, what part of the country you live in is most important factor—how big are the trees that you will be cutting? Here in Colorado we do have some bigger trees, but not that many. So, the average bar length I see used is a 28″. This size is plenty big to cut most things we come up against, as well as it is long enough to save your back from bending over too much. A 25″ bar is quite common as well, and on a lot of type 6 engines, that is the only one that will fit in the compartment for saws.

As for chain types, this is a tough one. There are myriad types of chain out there, and just as many differing preferences of sawyers. If your department has experienced wildland sawyers, the full skip chain is what most of them will likely prefer. It cuts well, sharpens easily and is stocked at most large fires. If your department does not have a lot of experience in the wildland chainsaw area, I recommend a safety chain, as the design of the chain reduces the potential for kickback.

Remember: No matter which chain you use, ensure it is well maintained, as a dull saw chain is very hazardous.

Training & Qualification

To become a qualified faller in the wildland fire arena, you must take the National Wildland Cooperators Group (NWCG) S 212 Wildland Fire Power saws. This is a 4–5 day class depending on where you take it. It covers safety, PPE, usage and maintenance. At the end of this class, you will receive a certificate which allows you to start training for advancement towards Basic Faller (FAL3), which usually takes 60-80 hours of cutting for the average new faller.

Recent revisions by the NWCG have resulted three levels of qualification: Basic Faller (FAL3), Intermediate Faller (FAL2), and Advanced Faller (FAL1). The FAL3 is an apprentice faller that should be supervised by a Intermediate Faller or higher. It will typically take 2–4 fire seasons for a FAL3 to be ready to test to become a FAL2.

The next step, however, is different from region to region around the country. The Department of the Interior (DOI) uses a different set of rules than the Department of Agriculture (DOA) does for chainsaws. The DOI uses a task book for moving up in qualification as a faller. This task book ensures that the perspective faller is observed performing a number of different tasks by a qualified individual. This qualified faller must then sign off on each of these tasks, and provide concise, honest feedback for the candidate. Once the task book is completed to the standards of the candidate’s agency, the candidate can submit it for approval to the next level.

To move from a Intermediate Faller to an Advanced Faller, many regions require that you take a FAL1 class; this varies from region to region. After you have taken the class, then you can start your task book to move up.

Policy Concerns

The last thing to touch on is your agency’s chainsaw policy. When I left the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to work for a city fire department, I was surprised to discover that there was no chainsaw policy directly governing non-federal agencies. I spent the first year on the job writing policy to ensure that the department holds the same standard across the board, and is protected in the event of an accident. If your department does not have saw policy, I would suggest that you first look at federal policy, and write one that fits the needs of your agency.

Cheers and happy cutting.

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