Just because you bought a chainsaw doesn’t mean you know how to use it
Eagle River Firefighter Scott Pottraz has taught more than 900 students how to safely and effectively wield a chainsaw
Anybody can head into a hardware or home improvement store and walk out with a chainsaw in hand.
That doesn’t mean the purchaser has a working understanding about how to safely use that powerful power tool. Now take that scenario and apply it to an emergency responder situation and the reasons for Scott Pottraz’s chainsaw safety courses become obvious.
Since 2005, Pottraz has been teaching first responders and people working on timber clearing crews how to safety and efficiently operate their chainsaws. Pottraz himself has worked as a firefighter since 2000 and is currently employed with the Eagle River Fire Protection District. He is also qualified as an advanced faller, which is the highest level sawyer — timber cutting specialist — in wildland firefighting.
Twenty-eight students completed Pottraz’s most recent chainsaw course, adding their number to the more than 900 students he has taught during the past 16 years. Through a combination of classwork and practical application of their newly attained knowledge, the students gained vital skills and helped make an Eagle neighborhood a bit safer in the process.
No proper training
Back in the 1990s, Pottraz was working construction in Eagle County when a job superintendent handed him a chainsaw and told him to start clearing trees from the building site.
“I had no training, no mentor,” he said.
Considering the potential for injury, Pottraz believes people should know a whole lot more than he knew the first time he picked up a chainsaw.
“You can go into a dealer and buy a chainsaw and the most they are going to do is show you how to start it,” he said. “There is no proper training programs unless you are in some sort of industry.”
That’s where his work comes in. In addition to his job as a firefighter, Pottraz operates his chainsaw training business and his clients include Vail Resorts, Aspen Skiing Co., the U.S. Bureau of Land Management along with local fire departments.
His most recent class in May was comprised of first responders, including Emily Marston of the Greater Eagle Fire Department. Prior to signing up for the course, she had only used a chainsaw on a handful of occasions. She noted some of her classmates had no chainsaw operations experience whatsoever.
“I was a little nervous going in, but coming out of the class, I was so much more confident,” she said. “Everyone in class said taking a tree down is a lot more complicated than they thought.”
“Always, the No.1 thing I teach is safety,” Pottraz said. His emphasis on safety starts by stressing the importance of proper gear including protective eyewear and safety chaps.
“Instead of going to the hospital and getting 80 stitches, the safety chaps will stop that,” he said.
At the beginning of his class, Pottraz makes a point of sharing photos to let students know what chainsaw injuries look like. “Some people walk out of the class at that point, understanding how dangerous the tool is,” he said.
His safety lecture doesn’t end at apparel. “The No. 2 lesson is knowing how to not get yourself into a situation you are not trained for,” Pottraz explained. “You need to understand when a task is too difficult and know your limits.”
Once students have a healthy appreciation regarding safety and chainsaw operations, Pottraz takes them out in the field. Because there is a difference between learning a thing and doing a thing, Pottraz ensures his students have a taste of both. Along the way they perform a bit of community service.
For their course field work , students cut down willows at the Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space and then completed fire mitigation projects at Eby Creek Mesa Subdivision.
“That way everybody benefits. It makes the neighborhood safer, and it is easy for us to do that type of work now. It helps out the homeowners association, too,” Pottraz said. What’s more, he noted there is no charge associated with completing mitigation projects.
Out in the field, Pottraz always makes sure there is lots of supervision for students — roughly an instructor to student ratio of one to three. And even after all the years of operating chainsaws and teaching others to safely wield them, Pottraz said he continually learns better methods for instruction and safety. That’s true for chainsaw work and firefighting in general.
“It’s like anything else. We have to continually train and practice to get better,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you can’t immediately know everything and it’s a job where you never know it all.”