During a violent storm, even a healthy tree can be imperiled by wind, rain, snow, or hail. And if you’re unlucky enough to have one fall from rough weather, a further complication is that tree professionals will be in demand and slow to arrive after a storm. So here’s how to avoid tree problems before they happen and, if you decide to tackle a fallen tree yourself, how to keep safe:

Give Your Trees a Physical

You can’t identify every potential problem, says Mark Chisholm, an arborist with the family-owned Aspen Tree Expert Co. in Jackson, New Jersey. “In the case of a major storm and a super-saturated soil condition, the most stable tree becomes unstable—it’s hard to predict that,” he says. Other identifiers include hollows or splits, which show weakness, and dead giveaways such as fungal growth and branches without leaves at the time of year they should have them.

Scott Jamieson, a vice president with Bartlett Tree Experts in Stamford, Connecticut, also suggests tapping the trunk of a tree with a rubber mallet (it should not sound like a drum) and looking for carpenter ants crawling in and out of a soft spot. Over time, arborists will also measure changes in the way the tree is leaning.

Act Before a Storm Approaches

Not every tree that looks troubled needs attention, but if you’re concerned and don’t have an arborist, it’s worth your while to get a complete tree inspection, which could range from free to a $150 or so. “It’s definitely better to fix the problem before any damage occurs,” says Chisholm. Many arborists use an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) score, called a Tree Risk Assessment, by which they judge a tree both for its apparent integrity and also for whom and what it could imperil by falling. A dead tree out in the middle of a field might not require attention, but a tree with slight decay in a busy city courtyard might warrant removal. “At the end of the day, it becomes a judgment,” says Jamieson. “Does the homeowner want to take the risk of keeping that tree around?”

Check The Pro's Credentials

Arborists are often hired based on word-of-mouth referrals, but any pro you hire should still be able to show certification from the ISA and accreditation by the Tree Care Industry Association—plus municipal or county licensing. (Only some arborists have these credentials; state-specific organizations also certify arborists.) The tree surgeon should also be able to present proof of insurance and workman’s compensation. Chisholm warns penny pinchers: “You may try to hire someone who has a cheaper price by $100. But if he isn’t insured and gets hurt, it goes on your homeowner’s insurance. It could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.”

 Stihl MS 180 C-BE chain saw.

Don’t Rush DIY Tree Work

Have a tree down across your driveway? With arborists scarce, you might be tempted to do the job yourself. But both Chisholm and Jamieson advise you to take it slow:
• Wear the appropriate protection: snug-fitting clothing and sturdy work boots, Kevlar chaps over the legs, protective gloves, a helmet with a face shield, and hearing protection.
• Watch for fallen electrical lines. “There won’t be any indications there’s a live wire,” says Chisholm. “You won’t hear things or see smoke, but there’s often electrical current in the ground or entangled in the tree.” Always treat any downed line as live and wait for the utility crew’s okay.
• Before cutting, examine the tree for branches under pressure. “Rarely does a tree fall flat,” says Jamieson. “When a tree comes down in an unnatural position and you start cutting on it, some of that will be under tension and could act like a spring and throw wood around—and at you.”
• Don’t work alone, even if you only have someone near who can help you quickly in case of an emergency.

Need a New Chain Saw?

Consumer Reports' chain saw Ratings of more than 40 models include heavy-duty gas models such as the Echo CS-590-20, $400, lighter-duty gas models including the Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230, the corded-electric Worx WG303.1, $100, and the battery-powered EGO CS1401, $300. If your chain saw is corded and the work you’re doing extends beyond 100 feet (the longest extension cord you should use), that’s one safe use of the built-in AC receptacles on a portable generator. Also see our buying guide for chain saws.