HOT SPRINGS, SD -
It's a nightmare scenario for firefighters: being trapped in a fire with no way out.
"I just thought, 'I'm never going to see my family again,'" Austin Whitney said.
On the afternoon of August 11, Whitney was battling the Coal Canyon Fire with two other men, KC Fees and Trampus Haskvitz, when the fire overtook them.
"When I looked up and seen nothing but a wall of flame, I tried to make a run for it. I wasn't thinking straight," Whitney said.
The fire had gotten below the crew and was racing up the hill towards them.
"Then I realized that it wasn't worth running and I just dropped to the ground, no time to get to my fire shelter," Whitney said.
Unprotected on the ground, Whitney believed that his life was over.
"As soon as I got turned around and saw that wall of flame I was like, 'I'm dying at 22 years old. I'm dead,' was the only thing I could repeat in my mind. 'I'm dead,'" Whitney said.
But after a moment, the flames started to subside and a fellow firefighter's hand came through the smoke.
"And when he picked me up off the ground, I tried to turn around and pick up my pack but he kept me going," Whitney said.
The second and third degree burns that covered 13 percent of his body required a two-week stay in a Colorado burn unit and multiple skin grafts.
"I didn't realize how bad I was burned until I got in the Edgemont truck and they were trying to dowse me with water and I just hurt," Whitney said.
That pain would only increase once he learned Haskvitz didn't survive.
"I had a feeling, but I didn't want to believe it; none of us wanted to believe it. But when they had us driving out and we saw the truck, me and KC knew," Whitney said.
Almost three months later, Whitney is spending time with family at home.
"I came from a long line of firefighters, my grandpa, my dad, uncles, my aunt," Whitney said.
And even while he's not sure whether he'll continue to fight wildfires, Whitney knows he has his family's support either way.
Whitney wants to thank both local and state fire departments for their support throughout his recovery.
If he does decide to continue fighting fires, he should be healthy enough by next year’s fire season, which starts in the late spring.
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