Stories - The Mighty Red Gum

Most of you have received my ‘lightning' story earlier this year. Now, comes another, ‘close call' on that same bulldozer.

My late father preferred red gums for fencing and shed building. I have only to look around the paddocks to see red gum trees he has left standing, when he thinned other trees many years ago, with the intent to use them at a later date for some project. Many years have passed since he last had need of such. In that time they have grown bigger than ever. One of them very nearly ended my plans for our ‘Clayton's Open Garden '.

One would not normally associate ‘open gardens' with much danger.

I decided I needed a section of red gum for a new mailbox to make my entranceway look better when people visited. As I also needed some decent sized strainers to replace the ‘Rock Dhu' boundary entrance way soon, on top of our range, I chose a really BIG red gum and Pete took on the task of cutting it down with his chain saw. I stood beside him throughout, at his request, so we had the added judgement of two minds. Big trees are never to be fooled with!

Strangely, right from the start I had an apprehensive feeling about cutting this big tree, and I have no idea why.

This tree was one of those ‘unpredictable' ones. Pete worked away for ages, the sweat pouring. He stopped often and we had many conversations as we tried to decide the direction the tree would fall. The biggest problem was that the tree ‘itself‘ could not decide. Eventually, after at least half an hour, it moved to one side gently and Pete changed to the opposite side and continued to work, but still she would not fall.

Thankfully Pete had many differing cuts in the tree, as it suddenly changed its mind, swinging the opposite way, jamming his almost brand new saw. He raced for his tool box in his nearby 4WD. I stood beside the tree, calling to him, ‘not to rush'. For some reason this tree was still not ready to fall yet. She just sat there with not a creak or groan, while Pete unbolted his saw motor and left the bar and chain where they were, firmly jammed.

There was absolutely no wind to aid the fall of the tree. This would work in our favour now, by giving us time. I decided our best option was to go home, get the dozer and push the tree over. Pete drove the dozer to the sight, which probably took 45 minutes. When he got there I refreshed his memory he had not yet had ‘smoko' and suggested he do so while I toppled this monster. I had done this sort of thing many times before when I had jammed a saw and had little, if any, concern to the risks, which should have been minuscule.

When the tree pusher first impacted the bark, probably about 4 metres up, it would not grip because there is good sap flow at present. I tried a few times, each time lower down the trunk and eventually she moved a bit. Dozers, by their size and bulk, have a tendency to hide some of what is happening in front of them. As a result some of the detail that next occurred is guesswork and some is frozen through my sheer fear and disbelief.

I thought the tree started to fall away from me but in reality the base had jumped away, off the stump, which left the top of the tree nearer to me. Gravity then stepped in and decided it needed to fall back the opposite way, namely, in my direction. My mind raced. I couldn't believe what I saw happening. I already had the dozer in ‘reverse'. Things seemed in ‘slow motion'. I remember intently watching the tree for some clearer sign as to what she was going to do. While I knew I was going to be hit, I still searched desperately for an 'angle of incidence'. Would she fall slightly left or right of centre, of me? Should I turn left or right in order to dodge the worst of the impact?

I remember making a clear, conscience decision to pull the dozer into top gear, reverse and go for full power and turn hard to my left. I have no idea if that ever happened and doubt it did. ‘Slow motion' in these situations is actually ‘pretty fast'! The next I remember the tree hit the tree pusher out front and violently forced the machine nose down, lifting the back end up in the air and forcing the tracks deep into the ground.

Something then tilted the machine sideways to the left and I feared she was going to roll. I remember trying to jump off to the right but that side of the machine was a seething sea of crashing, breaking and smashing branches. I knew in an instant there was no escape that way. Equally suddenly that sea was calming, the machine was pulling clear and somehow I was back in the seat.

While I had been about to jump, the dozer was still retreating in reverse gear and had dragged us a couple of metres further, nearer to safety.

HAD I managed to get it into top gear reverse it is unlikely that would have happened, as the drag of the tree would almost certainly have caused the motor to stall.

Pete had dropped his ‘smoko' and was tearing up the hill toward me as fast as he could go. I was equally as keen to shout to him that I was, ‘OK'.  Well, actually, what I meant was, ‘I was still alive!'
I had skin off in various spots but mostly it was muscle type strain from the battering of the violent, shattering, shaking, that had resulted.

Psychologically? I ‘relive it all' most anyone who goes through a car accident, might do. The tree measured 70 feet in height and around 5 feet thick at the widest part where it was cut with the saw, and was as big as any tree I have ever cut down.

All this occurred just before 11 am , Thursday 23rd October. We shut the dozer down, barked the log (which was not easy for me when ones own limbs ache all over) and both of us retreated to the house for lunch. I carried on as usual with my weather report for radio at 12.40 pm .

I was unsure whether I should even mention what had happened to anyone else, even to Emma, but I knew she would soon discover bits of my skin missing. Later that afternoon I told her a few brief details. The rest of that afternoon I kept telling myself, ‘really, what had happened was all pretty ordinary and my imagination was over reacting'.

Last thing that day I took Emma to the scene, totally convinced I would realize it had all been ‘over dramatized' in my own mind. To the contrary, I found I was even more shocked at what I saw.

Probably what I will remember most is the sight of the parallel trenches caused when the tree had driven the dozer about a foot deep into the ground.  They will be there for some years to come.

The dozer? Well, they are pretty tough. That is why I am still here. But there seems to have been hydraulic relief valve damage due to the impact of the tree so suddenly, not allowing the oil to reverse its flow, as designed. The tree pusher has been bent further, as she has had the odd tree over her before...but never this dramatic!

So, why did it happen? How did I get it wrong?

Some answers...No wind to help decide a direction of fall. Unbeknown to us just a bare square 1 inch of trunk remained uncut, where normally a much larger area would still remain uncut when a tree first starts to fall simply through gravity, and that holds it on the stump, safely, while it falls. The wet, sappy bark then added to the problem. If the tree pusher had contacted firmly the first time the tree may have still fallen away from me. The fact that I had a number of tries to get a grip helped cause the base of the tree to skip off the stump.

In future, when there is doubt which way a tree might fall I would use the dozer to push it much sooner, while there is still a decent part of the tree not cut through, to hold the base in place.

Some asked why I did not simply walk away from it and let the wind do the job, whenever. The reason is because it is very difficult to bark a tree after it has been cut a day or more. Even as good as the sap flow was it still took the two of us an hour to bark the main trunk.