Montana firefighter burned this summer returns home
Mike Kordenbrock, The Billings Gazette
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — When the plane landed and Dan Steffensen’s feet hit the ground in Red Lodge on a recent Tuesday afternoon, the small town and its first responders took another step towards trying to heal from the summer of 2021.
Steffensen’s Sept. 21 return to a crowd of more than 100 community members and first responders waving American flags along the tarmac at the Red Lodge airport came after he spent more than two months being treated at the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City.
The 65-year-old Red Lodge Fire Rescue firefighter was flown to Utah in mid-July after he was severely burned while fighting the Harris fire north of Joliet. His near-death experience came in the middle of a tragic summer for Red Lodge Fire Rescue and other local first responders.
In June, a month before Steffensen’s fire engine was burned over amid shifting winds, the Robertson Draw fire seven miles south of Red Lodge had exploded, at one point growing more than 19,000 acres in a day. Authorities allege a Bridger man riding a dirt bike in an area restricted to motor vehicles accidentally ignited gasoline he had spilled in dry brush.
The fire led to evacuations in parts of Carbon County and destroyed seven homes, and a dozen outbuildings. (Tuesday also happened to be the day the U.S. Forest Service declared the Robertson Draw fire fully contained after a period of 40 days had passed with neither smoke nor fire activity observed.)
In early July, crews with Red Lodge Fire Rescue were among those sent to look for Tatum Morell, a 23-year-old Montana State University engineering graduate student who went missing in the Beartooth Mountains.
The search was extensive but after little success, efforts were dialed back by mid-July. It wasn’t until late August that Morell’s body was discovered by hikers under what appeared to be a rock slide.
In early August came the death of Red Lodge Fire Rescue member Ryan Ples, who was fatally injured during a skateboarding accident in late July. Ples had started as a firefighter in 2006 and worked over the ensuing years as a lieutenant, EMT, fire association president, and fuels crew member. He was a father of two, and was remembered for his positivity, smile and generosity.
Amy Hyfield, a public information officer for Red Lodge Fire Rescue, said the summer was a tough one.
“So having this is sort of a win here, like we get to celebrate this. This is huge. I think this is really going to lift our spirits a lot to have him around and have him back now,” Hyfield told The Billings Gazette. “I’m so glad we have this positive note with the summer right now.”
Hyfield had been crouching to take photos Tuesday of Steffensen getting off the plane before she stood and hugged him. It was hard to let go, she said, but she added that there will be more hugs to come.
Next in line was Mike Booth, a retired firefighter who had gone through fire recruit training with Steffensen. After Booth let go, he turned around and wiped away tears from beneath his sunglasses as he walked back to his place in the ring of people and first responder vehicles surrounding Steffensen.
After news of the burn-over, Booth wondered if Steffensen would survive, and then he wondered what condition he would be in if he did survive.
“To see him just continue to fight and struggle and make it back here, and then all the people in Salt Lake City who cared for him and the firefighter community here and there that embraced him…It’s just who we are. It doesn’t matter your politics or what goes on, it’s just about humanity and what’s the best in humanity,” Booth said.
Asked how the hug felt, Booth said it was “the best.”
Steffensen briefly addressed the crowd using a microphone. “I’ve been thinking about this day since when I came out of the coma. And here I am,” he said. “And I know your prayers were there.”
Before putting the microphone down, Steffensen told people not to leave. “I still need hugs from some of you.” He then went on down the line greeting and hugging people.
Watching from a spot in front of an ambulance was Jack Exley, an EMT with Red Lodge Fire Rescue. Exley is also Steffensen’s next-door neighbor and had been watching over Steffensen’s home, including going over at night to turn on a light.
“We’ve been thinking about him a lot,” Exley said, adding that he’d also been praying for Steffensen. Signs had been put out in front of the house to welcome Steffensen back, and Exley said that he’d even taken a grocery list from Steffensen and filled the pantry. Laughing, Exley noted that Steffensen had insisted on having Twinkies and chocolate donuts on hand. They were on the counter, Exley said, and would be among the first things he saw when getting home.
Cyrina Allen, the disaster and emergency services coordinator for Carbon County, said she was with Steffensen after he was injured and helped direct ambulances to his location. She said that Tuesday was important for first responders.
“It’ll give them a lot of closure. It also supports them, because not just for Dan, but for everybody involved it was scary. Even those that were not on the actual incident. That’s a scary situation. Just to see him back home gives them some closure.”
Local resident Bill Morlean had provided the flight home on a private plane. Among those on the plane was Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz.
“It’s just an emotional moment,” Kuntz said of the plane ride afterward. “He looked at me as we were just getting ready to land and he looked and he says ‘I’m home.’ I think that just says it all.”
Kuntz added that seeing the support of the community shows what a special place Red Lodge is. “The support that everyone’s shown has been touching,” he said. “And I think it’s played a big part in him healing so fast.”
While at the burn center, Steffensen was intubated and sedated for part of the time. He underwent multiple surgeries, including skin grafts and an operation to give him new ears. By mid-August, his wounds were continuing to heal and he was trying to get his voice back. A couple weeks ago, he was able to walk a mile unaided. Steffensen said Tuesday that people’s prayers had fueled him.
The initial estimates had Steffensen in Salt Lake City for a minimum of six months, according to Kuntz. “Two months later he’s home.”
Brent Oliphant, one of the owners of local radio station FM 99 The Mountain, said the community has “cradled” Steffensen. Teresa Oliphant, who is married to Brent and also works at the radio station, said the community had closely followed social media updates about Steffensen’s condition and shared them widely. “There’s that bond in small communities, where when somebody’s in need, for sure you’re there to help them in any small way you can,” she said.
Steffensen’s story even made its way down into the hearts of fourth-graders at Mountain View Elementary in Red Lodge. The grade schoolers spent time over the last couple days decorating signs they held Tuesday to welcome Steffensen back. One of their two teachers, Katy Purcell has fought fires with Steffensen and trained with him. The other fourth-grade teacher at Mountain View is Courtney Halvorsen, whose husband works as an EMT. “It’s a very close family,” Halvorsen said.
“It’s been a challenge but I think it’s really brought us together and showed us how strong a community we are and how strong a department we are,” Purcell said.
The fourth-graders were “stoked” when they found out Steffensen was coming home, according to Purcell. She said that some of the children have parents in the fire department or Forest Service.
“All morning today they were ‘We get to go see Dan! We get to go see Dan!’”
In downtown Red Lodge at The Wild Table restaurant, owner and chef Sheena Ernst said that she and her staff would probably cry when they saw Steffensen again. The firefighter had been in there eating an order of biscuits and gravy with three eggs the day he was injured. Staff recalled his pager buzzing like crazy. Ernst said Steffensen has been a regular customer and a supporter of her restaurant. He’s already been telling people he’s ready for another order of Wild Table biscuits and gravy.
“It’s such a cool thing for the community to see him have such a fighting spirit and be ready to be back here with people that know him and love him,” Ernst said. “I’m ready, but I think it’s gonna be emotional.”