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All residents were safe and accounted for early Thursday evening after fire ravaged several apartments at Vantage Villa on the Clark Fork River east of Missoula.

The fire broke out at around 2:15 p.m. in the top floor of the three-story, 41-unit complex for senior disabled residents at 1319 E. Broadway.

Firefighters scurried to evacuate the building and to string hoses from hydrants in front of the building to the back, where flames shot out of windows and sliding glass doors and where no emergency access existed.

Fire and smoke were clearly visible from the east side of Missoula and the lower Rattlesnake, as well as from Interstate 90 and East Broadway. Missoula police officers directed traffic through a one-lane corridor on the latter.

Crews from the Missoula Fire Department poured water onto the roof from a ladder truck high above the building and from another hose at ground level between Vantage Villa and the river.

Eventually, smoke poured through the front side, but firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading laterally in either direction.

By the time the fire was knocked down more than two hours later, a portion of the roof had collapsed and at least two apartments below it were destroyed. In a couple of cases, burned pieces of the third-floor balcony dropped dangerously to the ground below.

Residents were quickly evacuated and eventually ushered into a children’s play area. Officials from the Missoula Housing Authority, the owner of the building, took head counts and arranged for medications, food and alternate accommodations.

More than 50 people were put up in nearby hotels for the night. Water and smoke damage to the uncharred apartments precluded a quick return to their homes, and Red Cross personnel were on the scene to help.

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One resident living in the apartment adjacent to the source of the fire said it started from a cigarette dropped on a couch. He and another neighbor attempted to quash the flames with a fire extinguisher and water, but decided it was best to exit the building.

“Mine went up quick,” Mark Sellers said of the apartment where he’d lived for the past six years. “There was no doubt that mine was gone.”

After the flames were subdued a couple of hours later, Sellers searched frantically in brush along the river and in nooks and cubby holes for Peter.

His long-haired gray cat “is more important than my life and more important than all the stuff in my house, and my house,” Sellers said.

He’d carried the cat to safety, but a terrified Peter later escaped from a car during the excitement and disappeared, Sellers said.

Kathy Pollock, who lived in the apartment on the other side of the fire’s source, got out unharmed but without Hanna Cabana, her Pekingese dog.

During the fire’s early stages, Pollock joined onlookers on the lawn behind the building to watch as firemen entered the burning building. She joined a chorus of cheers when one emerged from the building with Hanna Cabana in his arms. He handed the dog to a friend, who transferred her to Pollock.

“I was pretty tickled,” Pollock said later as she carted a package of bottled water to other residents, many of whom still seemed dazed.

Vantage Villa was the first headquarters of the Missoula Housing Authority, which was established 35 years ago to provide quality housing solutions for low- and middle-income households. The housing authority’s offices are now located at 1235 34th St., on Missoula’s south side.

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Reach the Missoulian newsroom at @missoulian, at newsdesk@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5240

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