Dustin DeFord, 24

Dustin DeFord had an easy smile and an uncanny ability to make people laugh, said his mother, Celeste. Growing up in the tiny town of Ekalaka, Mont., he would sometimes dress up in a full-body gorilla suit and lurch around town late at night, startling tipplers as they headed home from the taverns.

But his Christian faith was his foundation and his lodestar, his mother said. On his Twitter account, he said he was living “by the grace of God, not sure where I am going in life, but desiring to follow God in each stage.”

The son of a Baptist pastor, Mr. DeFord had long wanted to serve, and he found a way to do so in firefighting. He was the fifth of 10 children, and many of his older brothers have worked as volunteer firefighters or battled wilderness blazes. He joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2012, but before landing the job, he asked friends on Twitter to pray for him as he interviewed with the team’s leaders.

Recently, during a lull in firefighting, Mr. DeFord told his mother that he had talked about grace and Christianity with some of the other Hotshots. Not everyone on the team was religious, but Ms. DeFord said it had been an important moment for her son.

“That was our last conversation,” she said.

— JACK HEALY
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