BILLINGS — On Tuesday, the Red Lodge airport was a homecoming fit for a hero, as firefighter Dan Steffensen flew in on a private jet after spending weeks recovering at a Utah hospital.
The private jet was chartered by a local resident, according to Red Lodge Fire Rescue.
Community members, supporters, fellow firefighters, and friends lined the taxiway with American flags in hand as Steffensen’s jet flew over the crowd and then turned back around to land and park into a cul-de-sac of fire trucks.
When asked how it felt to be home, Steffensen replied, “Really, really, really good.
“I started crying when I got over the Beartooths,” he said.
His journey home started with a rocky road to recovery after suffering severe burns on his legs, hands, and face while fighting in Harris Hill Fire in July. His fellow firefighter, Scott Wilson was with him that day.
The winds suddenly shifted toward them, and when Steffensen attempted to reach safety, the fast-moving fire overran him, and he was severely burned.
Wilson remembers that day vividly, but mostly how Steffensen wouldn’t stop working the fire, even after he got hurt.
“Dan was still fighting the fire,” said Wilson. “He said, 'Scott nope, he says we’re still in the game here, let's get that thing fired back up and let's get ready.' And once I got that done, he's like, you know let's get some help in here.”
When things settled down, he knew Steffensen was pretty badly injured. The last time Wilson saw him was in Salt Lake City five weeks ago.
“And at that time, he was still in a coma,” said Wilson.
Steffensen underwent nine surgeries and when he woke up from the coma, he had been in for 30 days and had to learn to walk again and eat.
“It’s just a true blessing from God to see him come back home,” said Wilson.
The crowd Tuesday at the airport was filled with members of area fire departments and members of the community who felt compelled to come to show their support.
But one special longtime friend all the way from North Carolina was also there. Chuck Groat said he wanted to go see Steffensen in Salt Lake City but when he learned how quickly his recovery was progressing, he traveled to Montana to see him arrive home.
“A very courageous man,” said Groat. “I don't know why he took up firefighting, but it became a passion for him. He loved that and I guess he found his inner strength and 63 days he's out.”
When Steffensen got off the plane, hugs- and plenty of them- followed. Groat was one of the first to get a hug, something he says was emotional.
“You saw the emotion here today,” said Groat.
Steffensen became a firefighter with Red Lodge Fire Rescue in 2015 and just two years later he was selected as the volunteer Firefighter of the Year. His prestigious career includes fighting fires all over the western United States, including in California and Oregon where some of the largest and most deadly fires have burned in recent years.
Although Steffensen is back home, his recovery doesn’t end. But he credits the community support for how quickly he recovered and got back home to Montana.
“Because your prayers were there,” Steffensen said to the crowd. “And I know those prayers, got me out of there.”