FORT SHAW- One man is left picking up the pieces after a barn fire quickly turned into a wildlands fire Thursday afternoon near Highway 200 in Fort Shaw.
The land owner says he was simply working on an old car, one of several dozen on his property, when something sparked. The small fire quickly spread due to strong winds in the area and turned his entire lot into an inferno.
"I let the engine idle and I started pumping up the tires. Then I went around to the passenger side and it was all flames!"
87-year-old William O'Neil explains the moments before flames forced him to call 9-1-1.
"When I was trying to get the flames out it was burning my cheeks and eyes and I had to quit."
He has lived there his entire life and couldn't just stand by and watch everything he has burn to the ground.
Bruce Wallace, Assistant Fire Chief with the Fort Shaw Volunteer Fire Department says "He (O'Neil) thought about getting some water, quickly abandoned that idea and called 9-1-1."
43 cars, some "very nice Montana vintage vehicles" and 14 storage units went up in flames in a matter of minutes, torching a lifetime of memories from his grandmother's old farm.
Over the course of over 5 years O'Neil has collected, fixed up, then re-sol cars as a hobby. He estimates about $50-70,000 lost from potential sales.
The rubble is expected to continue to smolder on his lot through the weekend.
"He lost almost everything. His property is about 14/15 acres maybe," said Wallace.
Fire crews from at least 5 surrounding volunteer fire departments used close to 35,000 gallons of water to put the fire out before 7 p.m. Thursday. They were able to save a few cars, a boat, and O'Neil's house. Only some of the siding on the outer surface of his home are slightly melted.
Now, O'Neil is worried about the cleanup process, "What I need now is a front-end loader. I really don't know how I'm gonna get it all cleaned up but we're gonna have to work at it."
Throughout Thursday evening and Friday afternoon a few neighbors reached out to check on O'Neil.
Although he may not have insurance, O'Neil says he just feels lucky to have made it out alive. He thanks every firefighter who responded for saving his home.