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Millette oversees prescribed burns on public land

A prescribed burn conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife on a land unit in the area. Photo by Phil Millette1 / 3
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He plans to start a lot of fires in April and May but Phil Millette has permission to do so.

Millette is full-time firefighter in the fire management system with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Morris. He's one of two full-time firefighters in a region that includes offices in Big Stone County and Fergus Falls.

"You should expect to see some smoke in the area," Millette said of the April and May prescribed burns.

Millette and a crew of seasonal firefighters along with office staff, who have other roles but are also trained in a certain level of firefighting, will conduct prescribed burns throughout the region.

Prescribed fire season is primarily in April and May. Fires are conducted at fish and wildlife land on a rotating basis over several years. The goal is to burn a site every three to four years but most often, it's six to eight years because of available staff and time.

The land Millette burns is purchased through duck stamp dollars. The lands are dedicated to create habitat for waterfowl, he said. " We don't manage land for pheasants," Millette said. Land for pheasant habitat is managed by the Department of Natural Resources.

The main reason for prescribed burns is to kill plants and weeds that are detrimental to waterfowl production.

"If you don't burn grasslands every six to seven years it can get overgrown with trees and non-native plants...," Millette said. Plants that are not good for waterfowl growth can choke out the plants that enhance waterfowl production, Millette said.

He knows that some burns may destroy pheasant nests. But that short-term loss is part of a long-term gain in three to four years when even more nests are found in the burn area, Millette said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife land is divided into four categories for burning based on points for factors such as native grass and others. The categories allow him to prioritize acres to burn.

Just several years ago, the Fish and Wildlife offices in Big Stone, Fergus Falls and Morris had eight full-time employees and six seasonal employees, he said. Now, there are just two full-time employees and two seasonal employees, Millette said.

"We have to focus on areas of higher priority," Millette said.

An average burn consists of 130 to 150 acres.

"There are different levels of burns, I, II and III," Millette said. "Most burns around here are type III burns." A level I or II burn involves more acres or the unit acres may be more difficult to get to.

Millette will conduct a prescribed burn with a crew of four or five, or eight, to 11. Crew members can include the seasonal workers as well as other staff from the fish and wildlife office and those who may travel from around the state or nearby states to help, Millette said.

For example, Millette may plan a burn for a Tuesday. In preparation, he watches the weather forecast Monday night and Tuesday morning in case there is a shift in the weather.

"Weather is a big factor," Millette said. "We like the humidity to be in the 35 percent range, winds of seven to nine mph. We can do it at 14 to 15 mph."

Days with light and variable winds can be more challenging because variable means the speed or direction of the wind can shift during the burn, Millette said.

Firefighters follow a set of rules for prescribed burn. Each burn requires a 35-page burn plan which includes maps, plans, and other information such as medical and emergency procedures. Each plan is reviewed by a supervising official. The plan and the burn are also reviewed by Millette and the crew before and after the burn.

The fire is started downwind. Mow lines are cut to protect any surrounding private land. Wet lines also protect any posts and private lands. A land unit designated for a prescribed burn is not a square. But as an example of a plan for a prescribed burn think of the land as a square. If the wind is blowing from the lower left of the square toward the upper right of the square. The fire is started in the upper right of the square. One line of fire crew will extend from the upper right of the square across the top while the other will extend from the upper right toward the bottom right of the square. If there is private land on any side of the square a mow line is created to protect that private land.

The fire begins to fill the square as the crews advance down the sides of the square. Eventually, a crew will begin to fill in more of the square from the upper right corner to the lower left corner into the wind.

"You want a black line (as you advance) don't want the fire to jump," Millette said.

A good burn can take two to three hours, Millette said. The fire crew usually uses a grass or brush truck, or utility or all-terrain vehicles.

Millette is the fire manager for 55,000 acres in the Morris area and 20,000 acres in Big Stone. Millette has been a firefighter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 20 years. He's been in Minnesota since 2007.

For a story about how Millette fights wildfires, click this link: