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'Burned Over': Red Lodge firefighter's story of survival retold in new book

In the summer of 2021 longtime firefighter Dan Steffensen was burned over and badly injured while fighting the Harris Hill fire north of Joliet.
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Posted at 10:16 AM, Jun 20, 2024

RED LODGE - Longtime firefighter Dan Steffensen picks up the brightly colored orange book, holds it in his hands, flips through the pages and lands on a spot to read aloud.

“I had to remind him that he was strong,” Steffensen said.

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Those were words said to him in a critical time in his recovery in the summer of 2021, when he was badly burned while fighting theHarris Hill fire north of Joliet.

That day, the winds changed, and he was met with a wall of fire.

He was rushed to Salt Lake Cityto recover from his extensive burns, learning to eat and walk again, healing mentally as well as physically.

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Dan Steffensen

Fast forward three years later, and his story now lives in the pages of a book titled “Burned Over! The Survival of Montana Firefighter Dan Steffensen".

It took 21 months for Steffensen and Montana author A.J. Otjen to tell it.

As Otjen reveals in the book, Steffensen's tragedy wasn’t the only one that hit Red Lodge that summer.

“So many people were involved in that summer, not just Dan,” said Otjen.

That same summer, Red Lodge was shaken with tragedy when the Robertson Draw fire burned eight homes and 13 other structuresand an experienced hiker namedTatum Morell tragically died during a climbing trip in the Beartooth Mountains.

Red Lodge was reeling, trying to find something positive to cling to.

“Him coming home made it possible for everyone to breathe again because the summer had been so horrific,” said Otjen.

And he did come home, even though his recovery would not end there.

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Dan Steffensen

When Steffensen asked her to write the story of his burn, Otjen says the pressure was on to get the story right.

“To try and get that captured and put it on the page, was very difficult,” said Otjen. “But how do you say no to a firefighter who had been burned over?”

His struggles went far beyond what people saw of Steffensen in town, or even what the news reported.

“He was really struggling internally whether he wanted to live or die and trying to get that captured and put it on the page was very difficult,” said Otjen.

Steffensen talks about a defining moment in his recovery, when after yet another surgery he was healed, at least on the surface, with no more open wounds to treat.

He had a decision to make, much to the dismay of his close friends and family: Would he continue to fight fire?

“And everyone asked me, my family especially, why are you doing that?” he said.

To which he replied, “But it's who I am.”

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He now works regular shifts at Red Lodge Fire Rescue and says he’s not quitting anytime soon.

“It took me a long time to get there and I’m not going to give it up easy," he said.

As for the book, he hopes it does well, and answers some of those burning questions we all have about how he survived such a horrific encounter with fire.

The book is now available on the shelves in Red Lodge at Beartooth Books and online on Amazon.

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