Hannes de Wet estimates the oak tree is about 75 feet tall and 120 years old.
A split has appeared in one of the massive tree trunk’s Y-shaped forks and a branch—about 30 feet long, three feet across at its base and smaller limbs sticking out all over—could fall, perhaps onto someone.
Considering the near-constant stream of people walking alongside the yellow do-not-cross tape strung around the job site outside Fletcher Hall on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus, it wouldn’t be hard to do.
Co-owner of Tree Worx Arbor Services, de Wet and his crew must cut off the damaged fork without injuring anyone, including themselves.
“That’s not the kind of job that a dude with a pickup truck can do safely,” said de Wet, who graduated from UTC in 2011 with a degree in business entrepreneurship.
Despite the size of the tree, fixing the problem is a delicate job with a combination of physical labor and handling equipment—such as a multi-story crane with a grasping claw and chainsaw on the end.
“I think that, for a lot of people, it’s, ‘Oh, you just get a chainsaw and a ladder and you’re in business,’” de Wet said. “I think they don’t understand the intricacies of it. All day long you’re solving complicated problems, whether they’re rigging problems where it involves physics and knowing loading forces or they’re geometrical problems.”
The tree is safely cut piece-by-piece and lowered to the ground without incident.
De Wet and his family moved to Chattanooga from South Africa when he was 10 years old and his father took a job at Unum. After graduating from Red Bank High School, de Wet enrolled at UTC.
As a student, he worked part-time for a tree-cutting business and eventually decided to branch out on his own. Tree Worx now has a crew of 30, and de Wet co-owns it with Duane Blomberg.
“A lot of these people that do this kind of work are truly athletes and very, very intelligent people,” de Wet said. “It requires a huge amount of physical fitness and it requires that mental toughness of being OK with working in 100-degree weather, the day where it won’t stop raining or the week where it won’t stop raining. You still have to go up to work and do your job with a smile.”
Working outside is a necessity for de Wet. While tree cutting on the side, he spent a couple of years working full-time in retail management at Target.
“It was the opposite of my personality,” he said. “I was inside all day, doing very repetitive tasks and that kind of stuff when my strengths are people and solving different kinds of problems and being outside.
“So, thank the Lord, after two years, I had grown the tree business to just enough of a size that I could make the leap and quit my big-boy job and start doing this full-time.
“It has required a lot of effort to make the business, find the right people and keep the right people, but it’s been a heck of an adventure.”
His company doesn’t just cut trees down or pull fallen ones off roofs or power lines. It also helps keep them strong and alive through specific pruning and health maintenance. He works with homeowners and businesses when choosing and planting trees for their property.
And, yes, carrying chainsaws up a tree to slice off limbs or toppling a massive tree from its base is as dangerous as you’d think, he said.
“You have to operate with that in mind. You can’t get comfortable. We teach on that—having a humble attitude towards your work and a healthy fear around it, a healthy respect for it,” de Wet said. “Your most dangerous guys on the job site are the new guys and the guys who have been around for so long that they’ve lost that respect for the danger of the job.
“Everybody wants to go home to their family at the end of the day, and it doesn’t matter how big you grow the business. If you have somebody that doesn’t make it home to their family one day, it wasn’t worth it.”