Since their invention in the nineteenth century, chainsaws have revolutionized the way that we cut through wood. They are extremely powerful cutting tools, which take a huge amount of effort out of forestry-based work. As chainsaws are serious power tools, they also are dangerous pieces of equipment in inexperienced hands. They can cause harm in a whole range of ways, not least by starting fires.
Chainsaws are dangerous equipment capable of causing serious harm to individuals and are also a common starter of forest fires. Make sure you are properly equipped, adequately prepared, and have brushed up on chainsaw safety before using one yourself.
If you want to know more about how to stay safe with a chainsaw, in particular how to avoid starting fires with one, then you’re in the right place! Read on for our handy guide to some of the biggest dangers, and what you should do to avoid them.
How do Chainsaws Start Fires?
The most common ways in which chainsaws start fires are with sparks from the chain, heat from the exhaust, and being left on flammable materials when still hot. Each of these risks needs to be carefully mitigated.
As chainsaws get hot easily and are full of flammable fuel, there are quite a few ways in which they can start fires. Here are a few of the most common ones!
Firestarter #1: Chainsaws throw sparks
There are loads of reasons why a chainsaw might spark (there are enough reasons why chainsaws spark that we’ll discuss it more later in this article – and in crazy detail!), and sparks are dangerous as they can ignite flammable materials on the floor around your work area.
To mitigate the risk of sparks igniting material on a forest floor, make sure that you have a relatively clear working area, have a well-maintained saw, and are familiar with best cutting practices to avoid causing sparking. Check out our guide to this below, in ‘Can Chainsaws Spark?’
Firestarter #2: Heat from exhaust pipes
Chainsaws burn through a lot of fuel to work their magic, and the heat that this causes has to go out of the chainsaw somehow!
Different models of chainsaw have different exhaust pipes, so be aware of where yours is facing and try to regularly clear the area of as many flammable materials as possible.
Firestarter #3: Being unattended while still hot
Another way that chainsaws can cause fires to ignite is by being left on flammable material while still hot. Even leaving a saw on the ground for a very short amount of time can be extremely dangerous.
Chainsaws should always be left somewhere as safe as possible after use. Supervise your chainsaw until it is cool to be sure that you have not accidentally started the next major natural disaster.
Firestarter #4: Being fueled while hot
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that ‘temperature + fuel’ is a dangerous combination. However, in the moment mistakes can and do happen. Make sure that you don’t refuel a hot chainsaw.
The motor of the saw generates gas fumes which are highly flammable! Wait at least ten minutes after using the saw to refuel.
Are Chainsaws Really Dangerous?
Chainsaws can be dangerous pieces of equipment, especially when handled by someone without adequate training, safety equipment, and experience. Make sure you get thorough training and advice before using a chainsaw.
Over 28,000 chainsaw-related injuries are reported in the US every year (source), and while very few of these are fatal, the vast majority of these injuries are easily avoidable with the right safety gear and know-how.
Read on to find out more about some potential dangers, and what you should be doing to avoid them…
Can Chainsaws Spark?
Chainsaws can spark in certain situations, which can be a serious hazard. Common reasons for this include hitting metal, a dull or slack chain, other substances within the wood, or too much pressure on the chainsaw.
Sparking is a big problem. It can ignite fires, or spark in the eyes of an operator or those around them, and as such cause serious harm. In fact, there’s a whole list of reasons that can make your chainsaw spark. Here’s a breakdown of reasons this may happen, and potential solutions;
Sparking Reason #1: Metal-on-metal grinding leads to sparks
One of the biggest reasons that chainsaws spark is when metal hits metal – and sparks fly.
Now, when you’re not trying to saw through metal, you’re probably not hitting metal in the wood (or whatever else you’re cutting). Odds are that one piece of the chainsaw is hitting another part of the chainsaw.
This leads to our second reason for sparks.
Sparking Reason #2: Dull chain
One of the first possibilities that might cause sparks is that you have a dull chain on your chainsaw. This means that, instead of cutting through the wood, the chain is largely striking hard against it, which creates the sparks.
In this case, the chain needs to be sharpened or replaced.
Sparking Reason #3: Dirty wood
Impurities in the wood, such as metal or dirt, will mean that your chainsaw will be striking out. This is a serious problem, as it will not only cause potentially dangerous sparks but can blunt your chain and, in extreme circumstances, even break it.
If you suspect this to be the case, stop immediately and check your wood.
Sparking Reason #4: Too much pressure
Certain types of wood have different densities and weights. If too much force is applied vertically on the bar of the chainsaw, it will become much less efficient and start sparking.
Minimize the risk of this by cutting sensibly (for example on the outside of curves), making cuts that minimize the vertical forces acting upon the chainsaw.
Other Chainsaw Safety Tips
One of the most important things to know when using a chainsaw is what safety equipment you need to wear. This can consist of:
|Helmet||Essential in case of falling materials, such as unnoticed branches of the tree you may be cutting and could hit you on the head.|
|Eye protection||Protects the eyes from sparks and flying dust, amongst other things. Eye protection can come in the form of safety goggles or a visor as part of an all-in-one approach helmet.|
|Ear defenders||An underestimated aspect of heavy machinery is how loud it is. Consistently using a chainsaw can cause temporary or even permanent hearing problems such as tinnitus, or even deafness. Use industrial ear defenders to eliminate this risk, but be aware of your surroundings as you’ll also be unable to hear others around you.|
|Gloves||These should be chainsaw-proof, in case of extreme accidents. Gloves don’t just protect your hands from the saw blades, but also from the high temperatures involved and repetitive vibrations of the saw. While shock-absorbing technology has improved this aspect of modern chainsaws, it can still be a pain for regular users.|
|Chainsaw chaps||These are trousers made of special chainsaw-resistant fabric, which can prevent nasty accidents, especially when dealing with kickbacks.|
|Chainsaw proof boots||These are boots with steel toe caps, which come in different strengths related to different speeds of chainsaws. While they are heavy and a pain to walk in, it’s a whole lot easier than walking with no toes.|
What Should You NOT Do With Chainsaws?
There are a lot of things you should not do with a chainsaw. Common mistakes include trying to saw unsuitable materials, making bad decisions about where to cut, and standing in the same line as the saw is cutting.
Let’s break some of these key mistakes down a bit. This is a list of non-fire related hazards and is meant as a rough guide to some hazards of using a chainsaw, not as a comprehensive safety guide. If you are unsure in any way while using a chainsaw please consult a trained professional, who will be able to instruct you on best safety practices.
Tip #1: Don’t cut unsuitable materials
It’s an easy accidental mistake to cut the dirt by being absent-minded with your saw. This can blunt the teeth as well as wear down other parts, such as stretching the chain links.
Always make sure that the wood you are cutting is lifted above the ground to avoid accidentally getting the saw into the dirt.
Tip #2: Don’t cut wood in the wrong places
Unfortunately, cutting a tree that falls on you isn’t just something that happens in cartoons. It’s even not unheard of for foresters to absentmindedly cut down the branch that is supporting them and fall from a tree.
Plan your cuts extremely carefully to avoid damage to yourself or the surrounding area.
Tip #3: Don’t stand in the same line as you are cutting
One dangerous feature of chainsaws is what’s known as ‘kickback’. This refers to the bar of the chainsaw being thrown in an upwards arc as a tooth catches a material without cutting it.
Always stand to the side of your cuts so that any serious kickback will not push the bar into your body.
Tip #4: Don’t use an improperly maintained chainsaw
Chainsaws should be maintained with proper lubricant, the air filter should be cleaned or replaced regularly, and the blade should be checked for proper tension.
Taking unsafe shortcuts, such as using used motor oil for lubricant or neglecting to clean the filter, can result not only in damage to your saw but the risk of serious harm to yourself and others.
Tip #5: Don’t ‘drop-start’ your chainsaw
‘Drop-starting’ is a way of starting your chainsaw by dropping it with one hand while pulling the chain with the other.
This is in no way worth the risk. Not only is it a safety violation in most states, but an improperly controlled chainsaw is a serious hazard.
Tip #6: Don’t use a gas-powered chainsaw inside
Gas-powered chainsaws produce carbon monoxide, a dangerous (and even potentially fatal) gas that is odorless and hard to detect.
To mitigate the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, always use gas-powered chainsaws in open spaces with plenty of ventilation.
Tip #7: Don’t play with chainsaws
Sure, we all want to reenact our favorite moments from zombie movies. But chainsaws are serious equipment, not toys, and should always be handled as such. This means no running, and certainly no swinging the thing around. Don’t take unnecessary risks by getting caught up in how exciting these things can be!
Tip #8: Don’t forget to turn it off when not in use
Turn off your chainsaw when it’s not in use, even if you’re just moving between cutting areas very briefly. Especially when you’re cutting and wearing a lot of safety gear, it’s easy to miss trip hazards such as rogue branches on the floor.
Taking this one easy step can eliminate a fair few easily avoidable accidents.
Tip #9: Don’t start cutting without a plan
Careful planning of your cutting mitigates the vast majority of hazards on this list.
Planning may extend to clearing your workspace, planning the actual cut, or planning a viable escape route you can use in the case that a huge tree comes unexpectedly falling down on you.
It’s always best to be prepared for as many eventualities as possible.
Do You Have to Break in a Chainsaw?
Many chainsaw manuals suggest a brief ‘breaking in’ period. During this period, you should not be using it at full throttle, to allow parts to settle. After a few full tanks of fuel, you will be able to use the chainsaw at maximum power safely.
As well as breaking in the whole chainsaw itself, some mechanics advocate breaking in a new replacement chain by soaking it in oil before applying it. This makes sure that the chain is well lubricated and ready to perform both smoothly and efficiently.
Another way in which it’s recommended to break in a chainsaw is by using it on lighter weight material, such as tree branches and limbs, for around half an hour. Using it a little allows the tension in the blade to settle properly.
If after this half an hour you notice that the blade is too tight or loose, then it’s a good idea to adjust again, but if not you’ll be good to go on heavier materials such as tree trunks.
Final Thoughts on Chainsaws, Fires, and Safety
Depending on where you live, you may not see fires as a big risk. I remember when I lived in South Carolina (where everything is green and kudzu is everywhere) and starting a bonfire for a Friday night s’mores fest was no big deal.
That was a huge change for me because I grew up in Arizona, where a fire is a constant threat. Seriously – in a dry desert, all it takes is a single spark to burn the whole place down. And it’s like that in Utah, too – even if Utah has a few more trees compared to Arizona.
And in many other states, there’s enough fire risk that it’s vital that we all do our part to prevent manmade fires. So be smart with your chainsaws, friends. Once you’re done working for the day, make sure you store them properly. And I’ve got an article for you on that right here – on how to store chainsaws hanging up safely. So give that a read next.
It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- “Farm Forestry New Zealand.” NZ Farm Forestry – Forest Fires and Chainsaws – Discussion Document, www.nzffa.org.nz/article-archive/forest-fires-and-chainsaws—discussion-document/.
- Henderson, Teddy. “Chainsaw Making Sparks: Reasons and Solutions.” Crankfix.com, Crankfix.com, 31 Jan. 2021, crankfix.com/chainsaw-making-sparks/.
- Koehler SA; Luckasevic TM; Rozin L; Shakir A; Ladham S; Omalu B; Dominick J; Wecht CH; “Death by Chainsaw: Fatal Kickback Injuries to the Neck.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15027558/.