When Sgt. Kevin Vacura (Vah-SUHR-ah) became a state trooper 26 years ago, he was assigned to patrol the highways and by-ways around Minneapolis. So when the chance opened to transfer to the rolling bluffs along the Mississippi River around Red Wing and Wabasha, he jumped on it.

It was autumn, and the trees that dot the undulating mounds and twisting ravines of the bluff country were ablaze in a swirl of oranges, reds and yellows.

"It was one of those beautiful falls," Vacura recalls, "and I'd gone from the concrete jungle of Minneapolis to down here along the river. It was like going to heaven."

Lately, Vacura has been busy making sure folks don't get to heaven too soon. This spring, he heard a call squawking over his radio, alerting authorities to a non-breathing motorist along Hwy. 61. Vacura happened to be nearby, pulled out his defibrillator and shocked the woman back to life on April 21.

It completed a heroic hat trick. Vacura has saved three lives the past decade. In 2002, he helped extricate a motorist pinned beneath a car that had rolled into a ditch.

Then last Sept. 19, when those trees were starting their annual light show, Vacura responded to a collision between a vehicle and bicyclist along the Cannon Valley trail. The biker insisted that he was fine and didn't need to go the hospital. Vacura says he was sounding like a broken record, asking the same questions over and over and failing to remember the answers he'd given moments before.

Vacura spotted the man's cellphone and called a friend, who said he's always like that, ever since he suffered a previous brain injury.

"I wasn't convinced," Vacura says. So he called the biker's brother who said his long-term memory had been the issue. Vacura took him to the hospital, where doctors found and treated a brain bleed.

"If I'd sent him down that bike trail, he'd have gone down in the brush along the river, and that wouldn't have been a good place for him."

Vacura shrugs off a recent State Patrol life-saving award, saying he was simply in the right place at the right time.

"They kind of fall into your lap," he says. "So many times, you do what you can and the person doesn't pull through, unfortunately, with some of the serious crashes we have to deal with all too frequently."

The son of schoolteachers from tiny Dodge Center west of Rochester, Vacura is a 10-time state champion competitive handgun shooter. He competes nationally in Ohio every summer, except when he was "forced to stick around," deemed an essential employee during the 2011 state government shutdown. Given his heroics, it's hard to argue with that determination.

When autumn arrived, though, he and his hairdresser wife, Sally, were bow hunting deer amid all those swirling colors in the bluff country.