Lessons from 2022: Chainsaw Cuts

This article originally appeared in the 2023 Winter Issue of Two More Chains.

Looking at 2022’s reported instances of chainsaw injuries, one number jumps out: More than twice as many cuts to swampers as sawyers.

Photo from the Moose Fire Chainsaw Cut RLS. The chainsaw’s saw tip kicked back, cutting into the swamper’s chaps, gashing a four-inch laceration into the swamper’s left leg that required ten staples to close.

Is this uncharacteristically high? We don’t know. Digging around to try to put this into context, it becomes apparent that no industry uses chainsaws the way we do in the wildland fire service: in two-person teams, working symbiotically, efficiently, and rapidly.

The details of these injuries are scant. Of the seven chainsaw cut injuries reported to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, only one included more detailed information in the form of a Rapid Lessons Sharing document.

Injured PersonInjury Description
Sawyer3″ gash to wrist, damaged tendons
SawyerLaceration to left arm
Swamper4″ laceration to the back of the leg
SwamperCut to the shin and calf
SwamperCut to the hand
SwamperCut to shin
Swamper8” long x 2” deep cut to the calf
This table presents what we know about these incidents.


In the Moose Fire Chainsaw Cut RLS from 2022, a swamper’s leg was struck when the saw kicked back while cutting a small tree. The RLS highlights a key lesson that can be applied across all types of sawyer/swamper operations:

  • Swampers should locate themselves on the far side of the tree, or farther away from the sawyer.

The very serious nature of these incidents is starkly revealed when we recall the 2017 Lakeside Fire Chainsaw Incident Fatality. A hand crew saw team was working on a steep, brushy, rocky slope in southern California when the swamper lost his balance and fell onto the chainsaw bar, sustaining a serious cut to the back of his thigh. Several days later, he tragically died from his injuries in the hospital.

Consider the impact of the work environment and human factors in creating situations in which saw accidents are more likely:

  • Working in difficult vegetation, steep slopes, bad footing.
  • Physical fatigue in either member of the saw team.
  • Decreased mental acuity from lack of sleep, stress, anxiety.
  • Pressure to complete work quickly and perceived pressure from tight work spacing.
  • Inexperience with the workflow and body mechanics of the sawyer/swamper dynamic.
  • What else?

3 thoughts on “Lessons from 2022: Chainsaw Cuts

  1. 1) Lack of situational awareness.
    2) I have seen a decrease in teaching the basic fundamentals of chainsaw use since I began on the IHC in the early 90’s..ie felling, bucking, swamping, brush cutting.
    The mention of “decreased mental acuity from lack of sleep, stress, anxiety” if anything should be less of a factor now but we continue to see more saw accidents. In the 90’s we worked true 16hrs shifts, had 21:2 for days off yet had less frequent accidents. Our basic saw fundamentals trainining began with watching D. Doug Dent (pro faller) explain the fundamentals. This stuff was hammered home with us sawyers. The process of being certified as a C-faller was done using a reputable Pro faller, maybe we should look at getting back to those ways. Also in the 80’s and 90’s we were proficient through BD work, brush disposal, we would go into logging units and cut slash all day and then stack. Lack of logging sales have led to less of that sort of work thus less chainsaw proficiency. Also in the 90’s chainsaw work on fires continued through the night, nobody shut saws down once it got dark, snagging occured when acceptable and nesessary at night, thorough sizeup and risk assesment was done. Working in difficult vegetation, steep slopes with bad footing has always been an issue yet again now days seems to be more of a factor. Pressure to complete work quickly is also mentioned, well I can say that as a lead saw on a shot crew there is always a small amount of urgency but that should never be a reason to “cut corners with safety”. Certainly I feel inexperience working with saws is a huge contributor.

    • Are we seeing more saw accidents now? Or are there just many more people working in the wildland fire service? Also, I imagine reporting was an issue prior to recent years. How do you know that there are more saw accidents now than there were in the 80s and 90s? Issues in reporting is why we can’t establish trends accurately. Just some food for thought.

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