‘Beat the Heat’ with the XY Charlie Crew

Fighting forest fires is a challenging job that requires training before getting into the blaze

Chad Thomas is the manager of XY Charlie Crew and building it to be a hub for First Nation wildland firefighter training

Chad Thomas, manager of the XY Charlie Crew, is leading the development of top-level wildland fire professionals in the Yukon, for First Nations. Wildland fire management is an important part of our public safety services in the territory, and First Nation development corporations have recognized the opportunities for their members and rural community residents. They have formed fire crews of highly trained wildland fire professionals, to provide well-paying seasonal employment in all communities.

The work done by Thomas and XY Charlie Crew, the Da Daghay Development Corporation-operated (Ta’an Kwach’an Council) fire crew, has been instrumental in developing programs and wildland firefighters throughout the territory. Thomas, of Tahltan and Kaska descent, got his start in wildland fire as an emergency firefighter in 2004, when he was only 16 years old. That was a busy summer of forest fires, and firefighting agencies were taking anyone they could get at the time. Thomas was one of hundreds of emergency firefighters employed that summer.

“That [2004] was a really busy fire season and they had a big need for fire personnel,” he said. “I was significantly younger than anyone else, but really enjoyed it that year and decided it’s what I wanted to do.”

That summer was the busiest since 1976, with almost 300 fires that burned 1.7-million hectares, according to Environment Yukon statistics. In comparison, the next-busiest year had just over 250 fires with 400,000 hectares burned.

After a season of literally being thrown into the fire, Thomas worked the following season as a summer student, before spending the 2006 season in Mayo with the Na-cho Nyak Dun fire crew. From 2007–2013, he worked with the Teslin Delta fire crew as a Yukon Government employee, before joining XY Charlie Crew as crew leader in 2013.

In 2015, Ben Asquith became chief executive officer of Da Daghay, and saw an opportunity to grow, promoting Thomas to manager of the program.

“When Ben came in, he wasn’t from a wildland fire background, so he made me manager,” said Thomas. “Since I’ve become manager, our goal has been to grow contract firefighting in the territory. But we don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.”

The key part of that work is the Beat the Heat boot camp that they run at the start of every summer. The training program is focused on training participants to a higher standard that meets the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) Type 1 Attack standard.

“The goal is to get a Type 1 fire crew, so we can be listed on CIFFC and [be] able to go elsewhere,” Thomas explained. “We’re looking to send first-attack crews, so we plan to keep a 20-man crew in Whitehorse on call. They look at fuel reduction in the area in their off time, like Fire Smart.”

A Type 1 fire crew listed on the CIFFC would be on call for deployment around North America, when wildland fires become too large for local forces. Thomas noted they’d like to be available for situations like in Fort McMurray when all that additional support was needed.

They currently have a 14-person crew with another 20 applicants, for about 10 more jobs, according to Thomas. That includes a four-man initial attack crew that is very highly trained. They plan to get everyone to that level, to have flexibility to substitute members if someone is sick or unavailable.

But, training for Charlie Crew is only a portion of the work Thomas is undertaking through the boot camp. It is the training ground for other First Nation fire crews, and they hope to make Yukon First Nation wildland fire a hub for First Nations firefighters across Canada.

They are also establishing themselves as a leader for First Nation fire crews in the Yukon. Thomas notes that they are available to provide any help needed, whether that be setting crews up with gear, people or training.

“This year, we had over 60 participants who are employees of other First Nation fire crews,” Thomas said. “All the people who passed boot camp found employment—two years in a row.”

Thomas is also a certified instructor and did training for Yukon Wildland Fire Management from 2013 to 2017. He has made it a priority that everyone doing their boot camp is prepared. He noted that they’re very proud of the fact that everyone who comes through the boot camp has passed their firefighter certification.

Transitioning to an instructor’s role wasn’t a planned path for Thomas, but it has been a rewarding one. He joined the profession during a different era and he’s had a chance to create change.

“When I started, it was a different time,” he said. “There was hazing and people weren’t going out of their way to help a young guy.

“That’s what I kind of like [about] instructing. I like helping young guys get started.”

That sentiment is shaping his future goals for the program, after they’ve established the Type 1 first-attack crew. Thomas would like to engage more with youth and high school students, to educate them on the opportunities in wildland fire. The well-paying seasonal jobs are available and wildland firefighters are needed in all communities.

“It’s a great way to put yourself through university or college,” Thomas said. “Or just challenge yourself to something.”

The veteran wildland firefighter has battled a lot of fire over the course of his career. “I think over two-hundred fires,” he laughed. “You start to lose count.”

But the work isn’t done, because there is always a new crew to teach or a fire to put out, but Thomas wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When you’re a young able-bodied firefighter and you’re not being sent out to help, you’re wondering why,” he said.

For more information on the XY Charlie Crew program, visit www.dadaghay.com.

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