Yukon First Nations Wildfire crews are burning a spot for themselves on the front lines

Wayne Risby’s is the initial Attack resource officer with the Yukon First Nations Wildfire crew – a group of firefighters that try to keep the Yukon from burning to the ground.

Since beginning his career in the community of Ross River, he has seen many changes when it comes to First Nations playing a role in the firefighting industry.

“A lot of the firefighters that were hired back in the day were coming up from Ontario, Alberta and B.C., so there wasn’t a lot of native firefighters and there was no real path for us to go,” he said.

Risby told APTN News that when he started, the RCMP would take unemployed people off of the street to help fight fires in the community.

“I was walking home and he says are you leaving work or something?” Risby told the officer that he wasn’t working at the moment and the RCMP replied, “ Well good because you’re going to a fire”

At the time that Risby started, there weren’t many Indigenous firefighters

“A lot of the firefighters that were hired back in the day were coming up from Ontario, Alberta and B.C., so there wasn’t a lot of native firefighters and there was no real path for us to go,” he said.

Opportunities for advancement were nonexistent.

Currently, Indigenous firefighters make up 65 per cent of the Yukon First Nations Wildfire crew.

In 2018, the organization also saw the largest turnout of female recruits.

Risby said that all but one of the crew leaders is First Nations.

The Yukon First Nation Wildfire crew has also played a part in aiding the fight against the wildfires in Australia.

Jordan Profeit has been with the crew since 2013 and was one of the firefighters sent to Australia.

“We made connections with First Nations down there. The Yuin Nation and basically just told them who we are and what it is that we do and how important we thought it was for us to help,” he said.

Most recently, the Yukon First Nation Wildfire crew travelled to Ottawa where they were awarded with the 2019 Arctic Inspiration Prize of $420,000 for their program called “Beat the Heat”.

Another $600,000 was given to them to bring them to a total funding of $1.2 million.

The program is scheduled to start in April.

Beat the Heat will push recruits to their limits in an intense eight day training program.

The money will be spent hiring more firefighters, and to provide training and equipment to the crews.

Chad Thomas is the CEO of Yukon First Nation Wildfire and says that it only makes sense to train his firefighters to be the best trained they can be.

“These are the folks that live off the land. These are the folks that grew up hunting, grew up trapping. The forest is their home so when they get sent to a wildfire, they’re not out of their element,” he said.

Yukon First Nations Wildfire crew are setting the example for the role that First Nations can play when it comes to fighting fire.

“We’re not going to be your cleanup crews anymore” Thomas says “We’re going to push to be the best firefighters in the country,” said Thomas.

Reporter / Whitehorse

Chris was born in Toronto but has lived all over Canada. He moved to the Yukon in 2009 where he lived and worked in Dawson City. Chris’s background is in radio broadcasting and he has worked with CFYT 106.9, CBC Yukon, and CHON FM as a host and show producer. Chris joined APTN News in May.