If you think taking down a tree involves a big guy in a plaid shirt swinging an ax and shouting “Timber!” — you’re from the country.

Here in the big city (and in the growing suburbs) they do it differently. They have to. It takes highly specialized tools and equipment, as well as expertise, to take apart a Douglas fir in a yard without damaging anybody’s deck or roof.

“In the forest, you’ve got room to just drop them,” says Jacob Rogers, an arborist and supervisor with Eastside Tree Works. “But in urban forestry, we have to be really meticulous so we don’t damage the property around us.”

If you’ve been wondering about the big tree service equipment you see and hear at work in your neighborhood, here’s a quick guide to what’s going on.

Getting to the top of the problem

Whether the job involves clearing dead branches, pruning an overgrown tree, or removing a tree altogether, the first challenge is getting to the top. Ladders are fine for pruning your apple tree, but they just don’t work when massive trees, like firs and spruces, are protected by dense branches and thick foliage. The professionals employ either a “bucket truck” or highly specialized climbing gear.

We’ve all seen utility companies and area tree services using bucket trucks with hydraulic booms to reach trees that overhang roadside power lines. But bucket trucks can’t be driven into a thickly wooded areas or most backyards. And while our local trees can grow up to 200 feet, most bucket truck booms don’t reach half that height.

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“Most of the time, we’re going to be climbing,” Rogers says. “Some of the Douglas firs we climb are pushing 200 feet, and if we are doing a crown cleaning, we’ll climb right to the top.”

(Eastside Tree Works)
(Eastside Tree Works)

Climbers and cranes

Tree climbing, like mountain climbing, has its own specialized gear to protect arborists and increase efficiency.

“We wear a harness and climb the trunk using a rope system,” Rogers explains. If the tree is going to be cut down completely, he may attach spurs to his boots to help him climb. But if he’s pruning a tall tree, he won’t risk damaging it with spurs. Instead, he uses mechanized devices called ascenders that make it easier to grip the rope.

Climbers typically work as part of three- or four-person teams. The climber attaches a delivery system of ropes and pulleys, called rigging, to the tree and uses it to send branches and sections of the tree to the ground after they’re cut. If possible, the tree services will use a crane to increase efficiency. Then the climber and the crane operator coordinate their work, attaching each cut piece to the crane’s boom so it can be lifted and guided to the ground when the final cut is made.

(Eastside Tree Works)
(Eastside Tree Works)

Chainsaws, chippers and safety

While smaller trees can be pruned or removed using tools familiar to most homeowners, pruning or cutting down large trees calls for pro-grade chainsaws. They range in weight from seven to 20 pounds — and that’s before the chain is added. When tools like that are being wielded by people more than 100 feet off the ground, training and safety are paramount.

“We always have two trained climbers on the job site so if one is injured, the other can get to them,” Rogers says. Everyone on the job wears safety helmets with ear protection and clothing with high-visibility colors. The climbers receive aerial rescue training and they also wear protective pants and chaps to help guard against cuts from chainsaws.

“Visibility is important,” Rogers says. “You’re way up in a tree. There might be fog, or tall shrubs on the ground. You want to be able see people down there if there are going to be chunks of wood coming down from the tree.”

Tree service crews used to communicate by two-way radios or simply by shouting. Nowadays, their helmets include Bluetooth wireless communications technology. This enables team members to coordinate activities even while working in a noisy environment. Manufacturers are starting to produce quieter, electric-powered tools for tree services, but diesel fuel chippers, some of them powerful enough to shred 20-inch diameter branches, are extremely loud.

Want to see — and hear — urban forestry in action? Rogers invites you to view short video clips on his Instagram page, a feed that is likely to help convince you not to try any of this at home.

Eastside Tree Works has been providing commercial and residential tree services to Seattle and the Eastside area since 2005. From 24-hour emergency service to tree pruning or removal and stump grinding, Eastside Tree Works delivers professional workmanship at competitive rates.