Missoula firefighters who raced to a burning home in the lower Rattlesnake Valley on Thursday morning were relieved to find no people at home when the fire broke out.
There were, however, pets, including a striped gray kitten with big blue eyes lying limp inside the front door.
"He wasn't breathing too well," said Firefighter Brett Cunniff, who scooped up the tiny body and gently carried it outside into the fresh, cool air. "So I put some oxygen on him."
Minutes later, the kitten was in the back of an ambulance, cradled in the arms of emergency medical technician Paige Ostanhowski, who held an oxygen mask to a button nose turning a healthy shade of pink.
"He's awake - and scratching," said Cunniff. ("He" eventually turned out to be a she.)
Meredith Gardner, 22, who lives next door, said she came home at about 10 a.m. from her University of Montana classes and saw flames through a back window in the house.
By the time Gardner called 9-1-1, a visiting friend of hers - Emily Maynard, 23, of Colorado Springs, Colo. - had driven up to her house.
"I saw the smoke and thought it was my friend's house at first," Maynard said. "My heart just stopped. I thought I'd left a burner on."
Gardner and Maynard ran across the lawn and banged on the front door of the burning home, hoping to alert the woman who they said lived there with her teenage children and several pets. The two-story yellow frame house was locked and no one responded, Maynard said.
Maynard said she saw an adult cat on the roof. The cat leapt to safety, she said. An adult female cat, two other kittens and a pet rat died, according to Mary Johnson of Missoula Animal Control. An adult male cat and another kitten remained unaccounted for Thursday afternoon.
Fire Marshal Gordy Hughes said police broke through the front door to ascertain that no one was home. The fire began in a living room sofa, he said. Most of the windows in the house either burst or were broken by firefighters. An easy chair, charred down to its frame, sat on the glass-littered lawn Thursday afternoon.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation and Missoula detectives were interviewing the home's resident Thursday afternoon, Hughes said.
Hughes estimated damage to the house at about $20,000, although he said the home remained structurally sound. A firefighter suffered a minor injury.
The kitten that Cunniff rescued was taken to Pruyn Veterinary Hospital, where she was the object of much attention.
"Animal Control has checked on her several times. So have the paramedics and the EMTs," said technician Char Ross.
"She's a little scared. Anything that crinkles or sounds like fire, she runs into her box," Ross said.
But the kitten, which Ross estimated to be about 4 to 6 weeks old, was chowing down on canned cat food. "She's doing really good."
Animal Control's Johnson said she spoke with the kitten's owner and left it up to her as to when to retrieve it.
"She's got a lot on her plate right now," Johnson said.
The folks at Pruyn didn't know the kitten's name.
But Missoula Police Sgt. Sandy Kosena, who was at the scene when Cuniff brought the kitten out of the burning house, had a suggestion.
"They gotta name it Smoky," she said.
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, email@example.com or on CopsAndCourts.com.
Click to view image: 'Missoula Firefighter Brett Cunniff'
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