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Family sticks together after Missoula fire destroys their home, kills family pet

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Posted at 6:14 PM, Jan 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-29 11:02:33-05

MISSOULA — You never think it will happen to you, until it does.

On Monday morning, Lindsey Thompson’s apartment in the Elliott Villages at the University of Montana caught fire, taking with it the family dog and almost all of their belongings.

The official cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Missoula Fire Department. However, it began on the kitchen stove after Thompson's son started heating up oil in a stainless steel wok.

Thompson, a single mother of two boys, says she preferred her sons to cook in the wok because oil was less likely to splash out of the pan.

Her son left the room for a minute or two, only to come back to a kitchen full of flames. He immediately ran to wake up Thompson.

“He said he was screaming at me, shaking me, he was just fighting to wake me up because I was so dead,” she says. “I don’t really remember waking up, I just remember him saying ‘mom, the house is on fire, the house is on fire,’ I didn’t believe him.”

Thompson suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) 18 months ago after being hit by a truck on Reserve Street while riding her motorcycle. Since then, she’s had trouble sleeping, hence her body’s hesitation to wake up.

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Lindsey Thompson and her two sons lost their apartment to a fire on Monday, Jan. 22.

Once Thompson saw the flames for herself, she went into survival mode. She grabbed her dog Bella and led her outside, then ran to wake up the neighbors, who have two young daughters.

“I just started pounding on her door, pounding and pounding and she wasn’t answering. I just kept pounding and pounding and pounding,” she says. “And finally she came down and I’m just screaming, ‘the house is on fire, the house is on fire, get out, get out,.”

After the neighbors were safe, Thompson tried to run back into the burning apartment to grab her second dog, Rosy.

“And it was just seconds, and the smoke was already too thick, I couldn’t get in,” she says. “It almost felt like somebody was pushing me back the smoke was so thick.”

A passerby called 911, and the Missoula Fire Department quickly arrived on scene. They were able to contain the fire to the Thompson apartment, before extinguishing the flames around 12:15. Thompson says the firefighters were very helpful and empathetic.

Rosy was found dead.

Almost everything in the house was destroyed, from Lindsey’s laptop to her car keys to the apartment stairs. A fire-proof bag protected important documents, like social security cards and birth certificates.

Lindsey’s youngest son was at school during the fire, holding the only cell phone the family now has left. But for the Thompsons, the loss of property is insignificant against the loss of their dog.

“I would give up everything I do have left, my motorcycle, my car, take that too, just give back Rosy,” she says. “Take the shirt off my back, just give me my dog back. The little bit I have left over I would give to have her back.”

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The Thompson family dogs, Bella (left) and Rosy (right) play together in a photo taken years before the fire.

All six units connected to Thompson’s apartment had some sort of water or smoke damage, according to MFD, but four of the families have remained in their homes. Thompson and her neighbor were the only ones moved to temporary housing while their units were assessed.

The University offered the two families permanent housing within Elliot Village, however Thompson says the pain is still too fresh.

“I can’t go over there,” she says. “I can’t even look at my yard I get so upset, because of my dog. I can’t live in a place that’s the same layout like I can’t, you know? All I think about is flames shooting up and out.”

University of Montana spokesman Dave Kuntz says they will cooperate with the Thompsons to ensure they are comfortable in whichever permanent housing they end up in.

The Thompsons lived in Elliot Village Apartments for five years before the fire. Lindsey was attending med school before her TBI prevented her from succeeding in her education.

She has one year left to earn her Bachelor’s degree, then she plans to apply for law school.

Elliot Village opened in 1966 and has never undergone extensive appliance replacement or remodeling. However, Kuntz says it’s likely some of the stoves have been replaced as the University removes any appliance that is broken. Records of such replacements were not found by UM housing.

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The remainder of Lindsey Thompson's room after the apartment fire. She says this is the most in-tact of all of the rooms.

Thompson says many of her neighbors are scared to use the stove, since the coils are not removable, making the stove hard to clean.

Kuntz says University Housing has not received enough complaints about the stoves to raise serious concerns. Still, each complaint is investigated by a facility professional, according to Kuntz.

Thompson says the stove often made crackling noises, and she was always paranoid of the fire risk.

“I encourage everyone, if you have old equipment, like a 1960s stove, just replace them,” she says.

From 2017-2021, cooking was the leading cause of house fires and house fire injuries, and the second leading cause of house fire casualties, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

The NFPA also reported that cooktops were involved in 88% of cooking fire deaths, and electric ranges had a higher fire risk than gas ranges.

MFD Fire Inspector Jamie Porter says there are several things to remember to prevent home fires. Having a working fire extinguisher, closely monitoring any food items on the stove, and having working smoke alarms is important.

She also recommends establishing a fire plan with the entire family and enrolling in Smart911, a free service available through Missoula County where families can create a safety profile. The profile would include any information on unique needs in case of an emergency.

An example would be including the garage code or the information that there is a paralyzed family member who sleeps in the back bedroom.

Another tip Porter hopes Missoulians remember is to keep house numbers visible from the street, so emergency services can find the home quickly.

For the Thompson family, the days following their house fire were filled with family support.

“There’s been a lot of Rosy talk, there’s been a lot of 'it’s not your fault.' It’s been just sticking together more than we ever have,” Thompson says.

The family is grateful for the community support already received, and Thompson says it has restored her faith in humanity.

“I’m so in shock with how caring and loving everybody has been. I just want to say thank you to everybody.”

If you would like to help the Thompson family financially, you can donate to their Gofundme.

The family’s surviving dog, Bella, ran away in the commotion and is still yet to be found. She is a pitbull-heeler mix, with brown and white fur. Thompson says she may be a bit skittish but will respond to her name.

"I really think finding Bella would help us deal with everything, a little bit better. It wouldn't fix it, obviously, but it would help."