USFS

U.S. Forest Service workers fell day's worth of trees in a second with blasts

2012-05-23T21:45:00Z 2012-05-24T06:08:56Z U.S. Forest Service workers fell day's worth of trees in a second with blastsBy ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
May 23, 2012 9:45 pm  • 

ELLISTON – A day’s worth of logging took place in less than a second on a hillside above Hahn Creek.

“This is the most enjoyable part of the job,” Helena National Forest lead blaster Don Senn said as he inspected the parallel lines of toppled trees. “The day goes quickly when you’re concentrating on what you’re doing.”

Concentration was evident in the care Senn’s crew applied to distributing about 100 pounds of explosive sticks among 37 dead pine trees that threatened a stretch of the Hahn Creek Road. Once everything was in place, everyone moved 1,000 feet up the road and watched Senn pick up the Rolhenburler detonator box.

“We call it the ‘Rottweiler,’ ” joked Dennis Davis, a Missoula Technology Development Center blasting engineer. After two warnings, Senn yelled “Blasting now!” and a loud bang rocked everyone on their heels. A cloud of white smoke rose from the forest.

The emulsion-based explosive is more compact than the fertilizer bombs excavators use, and cheaper than the plastic explosives the military likes. Each stick weighs 1 pound. A six-inch tree takes two sticks. A 10-incher may need four or five.

“We can shoot bullets into this stuff all day long and it won’t go off,” said Davis. Instead of a fuse, the blasters dangle pigtails of detonation cord from each charge and tie them with a double half-hitch knot to a main cord. That cord will only explode when triggered by a specific blasting cap. In turn, it fires the charges. The whole process happens at 26,000 feet per second.

That interval can change a bit. Triggering all the charges at once results in a high-pitched “crack.” Adding a tiny interval between some detonations makes the blast sound more like rolling thunder.

“We learned that from the miners,” Davis said. “You can lower the sound impact on neighbors. We were blasting one time in the Ninemile, and a herd of about 15 elk were grazing nearby. When it went off, I think one might have looked up.”

The decision to blast instead of saw has lots of factors. Wednesday’s project took out 37 trees with a crew of five working about 2 hours. It would take a single chain saw operator about 10 hours to do the same job, given the steep terrain and lack of maneuvering room for more co-workers. So the labor costs are roughly equal, although explosives make an added supply expense.

But the Hahn Creek job also stood right next to a rivulet that made much of a sawyer’s escape route boggy and dangerous. A blasting crew can methodically set up tree after tree and then leave the area when it’s time for action.

Trees that have snapped midway up the trunk, or lost part of their roothold, or have tipped and tangled into surrounding timber, all may be too unsafe for a sawyer to tackle. A blaster can place a charge without ever moving the suspect tree.

“That grove makes you feel really uneasy,” Davis said of the beetle-killed trees. “Fire-killed trees keep their roots up to 10 years. But with beetles, after a few years, the root ball is nonexistent. A strong wind can bring them down.”

All but one of the trees in Wednesday’s blast fell as planned. The holdout hung up on another tree, listing at a 30-degree angle. That made it a perfect candidate for another characteristic of explosives, according to Bob Beckley, another MTDC engineer. While the first charge snapped trees at the base, a different placement could lift the leaner and shake it free from its hanging branches.

“Explosives are a wonderful tool in the toolbox,” Beckley said. “They’ll do anything you want.”

Helena National Forest spokeswoman Lori Wood said any private company with licensed professional blasters can take on hazard-tree clearing jobs, and a few have done so. A recent project in the Pioneer Mountains was put out for bid but got no takers, so U.S. Forest Service blasters used it to test demolition methods and expenses.

Some places don’t allow any other tactic. Davis recalled a tree that fell across a popular whitewater corridor on an Idaho river. There was no safe position for a chain saw operator to reach. But blasters could lower themselves to the log with ropes, attach their charges, and blow the hazard away.

“Otherwise, we would have had to wait for the next spring runoff to push it away,” Davis said. “There are lots of situations where you ask ‘Why put a sawyer under there?’ You light the charge, blow the butt out of it and it drops right down.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(16) Comments

  1. Chuck Feney
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    Chuck Feney - May 24, 2012 11:54 pm
    Just goes to show how weak and worthless the affirmative action Forest Service is with a chainsaw. I remember on summer day in the lodgepole woods when I cut 340 trees and , limbed them on 3 sides out to a 4 inch top. 4 inch stumps with Humboldt notches in every tree.

    only the Federal Government could think of a method of logging this F'd up!
  2. Got concrete
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    Got concrete - May 24, 2012 10:28 pm
    I don't know, I would suspect it would only damage a few linear feet of the trunk leaving many feet of usable timber. They don't particularly care as long as they can keep loggers out of the woods.
  3. chaser
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    chaser - May 24, 2012 3:31 pm
    I would like to konw who stupid fool is that came up with this hair brain idea, must be an environmentalist with a pyromaniacic back ground.
  4. chaser
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    chaser - May 24, 2012 3:26 pm
    I donnot believe they drag them out the timber wouldn't even be fit for chips or fire wood.
  5. chaser
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    chaser - May 24, 2012 3:24 pm
    This is to the stupid idiot editing these post please tell when he double tooth picks became profanity. The word I used in my comment is in the Bible and is used in the news media,or is tis more liberal censorship by the most liberal paper in Montana.
  6. chaser
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    chaser - May 24, 2012 3:18 pm
    Wher are the Friends of the Bitterroot,Earth First of Montana and the rest of the tree hugging baffons on this. You cannot cut the timber for the saw mills and produce jobs but the Forest
    Circus and state department of natural resourses can blow the trees,producing fire fodder for forest fires then pat themselves on the back.
  7. fomerliberal
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    fomerliberal - May 24, 2012 3:00 pm
    What a frickin joke. Do you see how small those trees are. My logger friend could have cut those same trees down in 1 hour or less. More "make work" for federal employees while the loggers that are left are about starving. Wonder if they had to go get an EPA study and permit first. Maybe the Sierra Club will sue. Those splintered stumps look dangerous as all get out. This makes the FS look like a bunch of bafoons. Your taxpayer dollars at work so some grown men can have some play time blowing up trees.
  8. geogriz
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    geogriz - May 24, 2012 2:59 pm
    Gotta agree with all above. When you add the comment from the May 13 article about this subject: “We just don’t have a whole lot of really good sawyers,” said Charlie Showers, engineering program leader at the Missoula Technology and Development Center. “The days of going out and doing that activity are long gone in the Forest Service.”, it puts all the pieces in the idiot puzzle. Sad part is the 3 FS employees at the Missoula Technology and Development Center make over $218,000 a year combined to come up with these big brained boondoggles. The cost to government for insurance, retirement etc, adds a bunch more.
    I'm sure there are plenty of capable, competent private industry sawyers who would be willing and capable of doing this job faster, safer, and probably at a lower cost. My guess is after they got their first 37 trees on the ground, limbed, and bucked up, they'd be looking for more work to do before it was time to stop for lunch.
  9. biker
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    biker - May 24, 2012 2:54 pm
    How I agree with you all and as a current FS employee and previous timber faller, am embarrassed by this story. If I couldn't put 37 small sized (see pics) lodgepole pine trees on the ground in two hours I'd give it up. God how the feds can waste money.......spend a dollar to save a dime. And you have to wonder how many trees they hung-up blasting them off the stump like that!
  10. msohorselogger
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    msohorselogger - May 24, 2012 2:00 pm
    What is the most shocking circumstance here is that the USFS public relations staff must have contacted the press corps about this work and welcomed news coverage. What were they thinking? The Forest Service does do some good work and this sets the agency back a good deal.
  11. Abonides
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    Abonides - May 24, 2012 1:00 pm
    This is idiotic, why am I reminded of little kids with firecrackers? What a waste of time and money. How much did those explosives cost? How many individuals did it take to blow up 37 trees when 1 guy with a chainsaw could have done 3 times as much for just 5 dollars worth of gas? Whoever green-lighted this project needs to be fired.
  12. wedge it
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    wedge it - May 24, 2012 10:38 am
    The FS is a joke. 37 trees? 10 hours? I, like bigdady, have been a production timber-faller for many years and if after 10 hours my clicker # said 37, I'd hang up by boots and quit. What a bunch of buffoons.
  13. JMitchell
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    JMitchell - May 24, 2012 9:06 am
    Tax payer dollars at work!
  14. likeitorleave
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    likeitorleave - May 24, 2012 9:01 am
    Those are some nice clean looking stumps they left for all of us to trip on and jill poke ourselves with. Or are they going to have to do the job twice and have to use a saw on them anyway. I was always taught to do a job right and you only have to do the job once. There are some very skilled sawyers that are unemployed that I guarantee can to the same job in the same amount of time and it will look a lot cleaner when it is all done.
  15. bigdady
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    bigdady - May 24, 2012 3:11 am
    What a bunch of bs i have worked wit h a saw all my life ,soon to be 58 ,if it took 10 hr to cut 37 trees i would be laughed out of the woods i challange any fs bozo to a cutting contest any time any where i can assure i can cut 3 times that amount or i wil buy the the beer. just another waste of taxpayers money
  16. Got concrete
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    Got concrete - May 23, 2012 10:42 pm
    Took plenty of time to set the charges guys. Still gotta buck em up and drag them to a road. Then you still gotta haul them to town. This is no faster, costs more and keeps good hard working men out of work. Typical bureaucratic B.S..
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