Meet the chainsaw wielding Charlie Crew, foes of wildfires

With more than 100 active forest fires burning across the Yukon, Charlie Crew has their work cut out for them. The team of six with Yukon Wildland Fire Management is known as an initial attack crew.

With more than 100 active forest fires burning across the Yukon, Charlie Crew has their work cut out for them.

The team of six with Yukon Wildland Fire Management is known as an initial attack crew. That means they’re the first firefighters on scene across the Southern Lakes district where they operate.

“Basically you just fly in, find a fire, you jump out and you attack it,” says Jordan Profeit, neatly summing up a dangerous and complex profession.

He joined the crew back in 2013 with Jesse Latoski, and both have come back every season since. Chad Thomas, the crew leader, has seen 12 wildfire seasons. Together, the three make up the core of the team, along with a rotation of new members.

Initial attack crews are sent in via helicopter, often making hover exits when there is no room for the chopper to land. The crew typically jumps out while the helicopter hovers a few feet above the ground and immediately begin cutting a landing pad, their only lifeline in case the fire flares up.

“If we hover exit out of a helicopter, and we’re on the ground, the only way we can get picked up is if we cut a pad,” says Thomas.

In fighting forest fires, the crew’s most trusted weapon is the chainsaw. Aside from cutting landing pads, chainsaws are also used to clear lines from the fire to a suitable site to set up water pumps. This path is crucial, as it also serves as a quick escape route from the fire back to the landing pad in case things get heated, something the crew learned first-hand.

“We were a couple kilometres down the line from the helipad and we got the call on the radio, ‘The fire’s blowing up. You guys got to go,’” recalls Latoski. It was 2013 and Charlie Crew was fighting a blaze near Carmacks. Profeit and Latoski were both in their rookie season, and Thomas had just taken up the title of crew leader.

“I remember looking to our right and just seeing a huge – it’s like a mushroom cloud basically.” High temperatures, low humidity and favourable winds conspired against the firefighters, causing the fire to rapidly grow in size and intensity.

“We just hoofed it back. We made it out safe and everything was fine. But yeah, definitely an adrenaline rush.”

Even with the extra drama, the crew held their position that day, says Thomas.

Though the training and standards they are held to are the same as other fire crews, Charlie Crew is unique in other ways. It’s owned by the Ta’an Kwach’an First Nation’s Da Daghay Development Corporation, which holds a contract, worth $123,000 annually, with the Yukon government that licenses the crew’s services to the territory. Da Daghay hires and trains firefighters and manages the internal workings of running a fire crew.

Ben Asquith, the general manager of Da Daghay, oversees all investments and projects of the corporation. He describes Charlie Crew as a money-making venture that benefits the Ta’an Kwach’an First Nation.

“Ultimately our goal of the development corporation is to make money on the contract,” he says. “We’re giving back in terms of jobs. We’re giving back in terms of training opportunities, skills.”

Even if firefighting is not the career path of choice for Ta’an Kwach’an citizens just entering the workforce, Asquith says joining the crew is an appealing first job, and allows new recruits to serve the community they grew up in. It also provides a wealth of learning for those coming right out of school.

“This might be their first job ever,” Asquith says. “And they’re around a group of guys that are going to show them some skills, some life skills, about how to go out there in the workplace.”

To that end, Asquith has given more control of the crew over to Thomas. Catching the vision, Thomas has started a program to train Ta’an Kwach’an just entering the workforce. Though they are not fully certified to go on the front lines, recruits do hands-on work at the base such as managing logistics and loading helicopters.

Asquith’s hope is to see his core group of Thomas, Profeit, and Latoski help turn the newer recruits into fully-trained firefighters.

“We’ll build that foundation,” says Asquith, “that Ta’an Kwach’an citizens are the best firefighters that there are. That’s the vision.”

Contact Joel Krahn at

joel.krahn@yukon-news.com

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