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A Missoula City firefighter looks at the damage Friday night on the back side of a historic Missoula house after fire damaged the structure. The home at 319 S. Fifth Street West, long rumored to be haunted, is owned by Mark and Susan Estep. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

The turreted Queen Anne home on Missoula's Fifth Street - the one with the haunted past - caught fire on Friday night, but firefighters promptly snuffed out the blaze and confined the damage to the uppermost floor.

Witnesses say they heard an explosion that shook the walls of neighboring houses, and first-response crews reported 15-foot flames towering over the roof of the home at 319 S. Fifth St. W.

According to Battalion Chief Joe Toth, the home owners said a propane cannister had been sitting on the deck, which might explain the explosion, but the cause of the fire remained unknown as of Friday night.

"We met it at the top of the stairs," said Capt. Dave Wolter, who was first on scene, arriving shortly after 8 p.m. Wolter described heavy exterior damage to the back of the home, and said the fire burned up the side of the wall inside, badly damaging the living room.

The homeowners reported the fire themselves, drawing a four-engine response, as well as a firetruck, an ambulance, a battalion chief and two fire inspectors. Off-duty crews staffed Missoula's emptied fire stations, shoring up resources in the event of a second fire emergency. Meanwhile, spectators lined the sidewalk.

"That's why we have these systems in place," Toth said. "We'll be ready if there's a simultaneous emergency."

The home at 319 S. Fifth St. W. has a storied past, and notably housed one of the University of Montana's first professors. After that it was inhabited by Jim and Eleanor Zakos and their eight children and - apparently - an assortment of ghostly apparitions.

The Zakos family lived in the house for half the century, and a daughter, Mary, wrote pornographic horror stories there. The mother, Eleanor, once called in a priest to conduct an exorcism in an upstairs bedroom, according to Missoulian archives, and dozens of cats roamed the premises. Trash collected and repairs went untended, often for years.

Beginning in 1987, a succession of owners have worked to save the Zakos house from demolition, often over the objections of health officers who condemned the building and neighbors who wanted it razed.

The latest owners, Susan and Mark Estep, bought and renovated the house in 1998, and are responsible for its current manifestation and its Victorian-era architectural design.

While fire crews conducted "salvage and overhaul" to ensure every nook and cranny of the home was extinguished, a black cat roamed the premises.

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