Dan Stefferson has endured a misery few people on this side of heaven will ever know. Last summer the Red Lodge volunteer firefighter was battling the Harris Hills blaze when the winds suddenly shifted and he was overrun by a wall of flames. He ran to his truck but wasn’t able to make it fully in time, resulting in second and third-degree burns over most his body and a fear that this was the end.
“The flame height was about two feet and it wasn’t moving. There was no wind, just a touch. So, we did what we do best. We attacked that fire. We were making really good headway. And, then, we were re-setting to go down another edge. I looked to my left and there was a 20- foot- high wall of flame coming at us fast…(The Fire) came so fast. There was no time to do anything, but try to keep going. It was so fast.
“There was no pain. I looked down and saw the flames come out under the truck. And, I just said, ‘This is not going to end well.’ It was not scary. It was not concerning. It was not painful. It was an issue. And I knew we had to get out of there quickly or we were both going to die. And we did.”
He suffered burns over his face, hands, and chest. He spent over 60days in the burn unit at a Salt Lake City hospital, the first 23 spent in a medically-induced coma, as his body would likely go into shock and die from the pain. The other 37 were spent on further healing, ultimately going through 14 surgeries. He had to do daily physical therapy and relearn basic functions like how to eat, walk, and stretch, and after the burns and subsequent skin grafts and scar tissue affected his mobility.
“To be very honest, in week two, I tried to feed myself and could not do it. My hands couldn’t get there and I cried like a baby because I thought I’d never do it. But the therapist said, just shut up, we’ll get this fixed. And he did and now I could do just that.”
That was 6 months ago.
Since then, the beloved firefighter has been working hard on rehab in order to get out there and back to doing what he loves: fighting fires. He’s doing physical therapy at home, stretching and exercising daily, and doing everything that he can to prepare himself for his plan for return. As a bit of a dark horse problem, he’s been waiting to see whether or not he needs another surgery on his leg, which would delay him from his expected goal of being back out in the field by May. Still, he’s optimistic about his future, knowing how much it took to get him to where he is now, and what he’s already accomplished.
“I want to get back to fire. I promised myself I would get back. And I will.”