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Hancock resident fights wildfires

A scene from the Caribou Fire, near Eureka, Montana, in September 2017. Just out of the picture on the left is Canada. The fire was on each side of the border. Photo by Phil Millette 1 / 3
Although wildfires are dangerous and can cause tremendous damage they can also create some spectacular colors. A plan used to dump fire fighting material flies over a fire in this scene. This is the Sunrise Fire near Missoula, Montana in August 2017. Photo by Phil Millette2 / 3
A scene from the Sapphire Fire, near Phillipsburg, Montana in August of 2017. Photo by Phil Millette3 / 3

The bag is always packed during the summer and into the fall because when Phil Millette gets a fire call during that time, he's usually called to another state.

Millette is a 20-year firefighting veteran who has been at the U .S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Office in Morris since 2007. Before that, Millette was in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. He completed structural fire school in college. And after working a couple of seasons with the federal government, he decided to combine his interest in the outdoors with firefighting. He works full-time in the firefighter program for Fish and Wildlife in Morris. He also spends part of the summer and fall in an on-call status with Fish and Wildlife to respond to wildfires in the U.S.

"July and August last year were the busiest fire seasons of my career as far as hours," Millette said.

Nationally, it was an above-average year for wildfires as more than 10 million acres burned in 71, 500 fires, Millette said.

Millette was at some of those major wildfires. The on-call status is ranked by preparedness levels or PL. PL1 is the least likely status for being called out while PL5 is the most likely.

"I spent 38 days on PL5 and 37 days on PL4. That's rare," Millette said. When he's called out he spends about two weeks at a fire and then, returns home for two mandatory days off.

The on-call response means vacations get interrupted and overall family time gets interrupted. "It is getting harder as the kids are getting older," Millette said. Millette and his wife Kaci and their children, Cora, 13, and Cruise, 9, live in Hancock.

He does make sure that he requests not to be on call for weddings or funerals but his volunteer job as an assistant kids summer league baseball coach gets put on hold when he needs to respond to a wildfire.

"My bag is always packed. It's 95 percent packed 100 percent of the time," Millette said. "If you are on PL1 or PL2 there is less chance of you getting called out but you still need to have your bags packed."

And his sense of duty keeps him on call. "You're called to do it," Millette said. "You are responding to a national effort."

Millette said he likes the camaraderie that comes with fighting wildfires. He conducts prescribed burns on local USFWS land in the spring. Fighting wildfires takes similar skills.

"You are doing similar things, but, you are learning new ways to do things," he said.

Wildfire response requires a span-of-control structure that's been in use since at least the 1970s, Millette said. One incident commander is in charge of the whole operation but he works with several core people who command pieces of the structure. Millette has served as a division leader and in other roles on wildfires.

For firefighting purposes, the impacted acres of a wildfire are split into divisions. Each division has a division leader who is responsible for his portion of fire response.

"As a division leader, you have 50 to 100 people working for you. You don't have direct contact with all of them but you (are responsible)," Millette said. The structure under a division leader includes crews with their own crew leader.

"If possible you try to walk or drive your division each day," Millette said. Sometimes, he can only fly over his division.

The day usually starts around 5 a.m. and ends around 10 p.m.

"It's more mental stress than physical fatigue," Millette said of being a division leader. "You are managing a piece of dirt and 50 to 100 people. You have to make sure all the people are safe."

Any fire is dangerous, even the grass fires involved in prescribed burns, he said. "Grass fires burn really fast and can take you by surprise," Millette said. A prescribed burn requires a plan with an escape route.

Wildfires must be fought with the same care and attention, he said.

"I've never been in imminent danger where I feel my life will end soon," Millette said. Although he's been working close to areas where firefighters have died. "You don't see it but, it's close to you and you know what's going on," he said.

He's been in situations that have been "intense and hairy. Where you have to find a safe area to be, where it's uncomfortable with the smoke...and you don't know when you will get out. It's burning all around you. You know you are going to get out. You just have to wait it out," Millette said.

While he likes serving as a division leader, Millette plans to join a hand crew again this summer. "I'd like to be a crew boss," Millette said. A hand crew is more physically demanding as crews carry firefighting equipment that can include axes and chainsaws as well as other supplies. Backpacks weigh about 45 pounds.

A hand crew may be digging fire lines, cutting down trees or doing mop up after the fire has passed. Mop up can include digging out tree stumps and other natural debris.

The only thing lightweight about fighting wildfires is the clothing. Millette wears lightweight Nomex fire fighting gear that is fire resistant. "It's fire resistant so it will burn," Millette said. But, "it deflects a lot of heat," he said. The gear is green-colored pants with yellow shirts but tan has recently been added, he said.

Although he most often responds to wildfires, Millette and other USFWS employees also respond to natural disasters and similar incidents. Millette has worked in a leadership role at an oil spill in 2010 and with space shuttle recovery in Texas. "I haven't been to a hurricane or flood...," he said.

Millette said had he become a conventional firefighter instead of working for the USFWS he wouldn't have traveled and worked on wildfires. He respects those who work for fire departments, including those who serve on volunteer departments. Yet, a conventional role was not a fit for him, Millette said.

He likes the outdoor fire season locally and the wildfire season.

For a story on Millette's work on prescribed burns, click this link: