As soon as he turned 18, Dustin DeFord volunteered for the Carter County Rural Fire Department in Ekalaka, embarking on a career that ended Sunday in an Arizona inferno.
DeFord, 24, was a member of a Hotshot fire crew killed battling the Yarnell fire about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. Eighteen other firefighters died at his side in one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.
"He was one of the good ones who ever walked on this earth," Carter County Sheriff Neil Kittelmann said Monday. "I've told two or three people that I thought needed to know. People reacted like he was one of their own kids."
DeFord worked in the county's Hazardous Fuel Reduction program and as a firefighter every summer from 2007 to 2012, and Kittelmann was his boss. But for the summer of 2013, DeFord won a coveted position on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, Ariz.
"A lot of people wanted to get on the crew he was on," Kittelmann said. "He was real excited, and we were all glad for him."
Tom Carroll, who was a strike-team leader for Miles City during last summer's big fire season, had DeFord on one of his engine crews. He'd known DeFord for 15 years.
Asked what he would remember most about the happy-go-lucky Ekalaka boy, he answered, "The smile on his face and the swagger in his walk. You could tell a mile away, who was coming and who was going."
Carroll said that when younger kids joined the crew, "he liked to josh them a little, but when they were on the fire lines, he was right there to help out."
Ekalaka and Carter County are taking it hard, Kittelmann said. Through the years, DeFord had worked odd jobs of one kind or another for most people in town, the sheriff said. Almost everyone knew him in the small, close-knit southeastern Montana community.
"It's unbelievable the people looking out for us," said the firefighter's father, Pastor Steve DeFord of the First Baptist Church. "We've got enough food in the house to last a year."
This week, Dustin DeFord's nine brothers and sisters will be gathering at the home of their parents, Steve and Celeste DeFord, to remember the fifth child born to the large family.
The eldest of his siblings, a Marine Corps staff sergeant, will be traveling home from Afghanistan. An older brother, who is fighting fire with his helicopter team in New Mexico, is on his way. A younger brother, on a Hotshot crew fighting fire in an area of Alaska so remote that the only way in and out is by air, has been contacted. It's hard to tell when he may be able to get home.
Pastor DeFord, himself a volunteer on the Carter County Rural Fire Department, said he saw firefighting as a way to help the community, not as a vocation.
"But my kids thought it was the greatest," he said.
While fire played a big role in his life and death, DeFord always believed that God was his guiding force. On his Facebook page a year ago, he talked about wanting to find work in Western Montana.
"But for whatever reason God has moved me to HOT Arizona instead," he wrote. "I've been chasing wildland fire jobs for a few years and now I have been wondering why I'm doing it. Is it because this is what I want to do, or is it something God is using to prepare me for later in life?"
DeFord was born in Baltimore. The family moved to Columbus in 1990, then to Ekalaka in 1996. Through the years he was active in his father's church.
"He even filled the pulpit for me on occasion," Pastor DeFord said.
DeFord attended Cornerstone Bible institute in Hot Springs, S.D., and graduated three years ago, his father said. He served a six-week mission at Fort Chipewyan in northeast Canada in 2011, working with Native people.
"Dustin had a great sense of humor," his father said. "He'd have everybody in stitches for extended periods of time. He had people rolling on the floor."
He loved hunting and driving his Jeep in the hills, Kittelmann said.
"He was just a clean-cut, hardworking kid," the sheriff remembered. "He was willing to do anything you asked. There was never even a mumble, he just did it. Nothing was ever too tough."
Pastor DeFord said his son would likely be buried in Ekalaka, but no arrangements have been made as yet. He said he didn't know when the body would be released.
"We know he'll be missed, but God is in control of things," he said. "That's our comfort."
DeFord clearly believed the same. On his Facebook page, the firefighter wrote more than a year ago, "My life is proof that God wants to use me — starting now."