LIVINGSTON — With the help of social media, some determined animal lovers and a few treats, Baron the dog is back with his people.
Baron, a 9-year-old Newfoundland-Labrador mix, was separated from owners Scott and Susan Pitman during the Pine Creek fire on Wednesday, Aug. 29, as flames threatened the Pitmans' property south of Pine Creek Lodge and Cafe.
"Everybody was saying he was lost," Susan said as she and Scott sat on a deck outside their daughter's Livingston home with Baron at their feet, tail thumping as Scott patted him.
"But I said he's not lost, he's out looking for us," Susan said.
And indeed, he was.
For 25 years, the Pitmans have lived near Sunset Trail and Roche Jaune Road, the area in which the blaze started on Wednesday, Aug. 29. Scott had been working all season to reduce fire danger from heavily treed areas, they said.
That day, a neighbor warned them that the fire was coming their way.
Flames hit the home on one portion of the structure and came within 10 to 15 feet of their home in other areas, Susan said.
Damage includes broken windows, smoke damage, a damaged interior wall, damaged paint plus additional problems, Susan said. Trees and other vegetation on the property are now charred, meaning the Pitmans have suffered extensive damage to their land.
Also, an outbuilding was destroyed. The building was where all of their personal belongings from family photos to jewelry to clothing were stored and housed their offices and work spaces.
The couple had nearly all of their personal belongings in the outbuilding while they rented their house out this summer. Also stored in the building and destroyed in the fire were the supplies and patterns for Susan's craft business.
Susan, known to some as "the Angel Lady," makes microwavable cozies for muscle aches and has made wooden and porcelain angels, the supplies for which were also in the outbuilding.
Scott, Susan, Baron and their cat, Angelbell, which still is missing, lived elsewhere on the property. The trailer where they were living was also lost in the blaze.
The Pitmans say they will now have to grapple with the effects to their home rental business. The home will be unrentable for some time as repairs are made, meaning they will have to refund money to guests who had signed up for rentals.
"I knew it was going to be epic," Susan said of seeing the fire as they ran for hoses that day.
Before long, neighbors — and eventually firefighters — helped as the flames swept closer. Baron was running around, watching.
At one point, Scott ran into the outbuilding to see what he could save but realized it wasn't safe.
"People were screaming, 'Get out. Get out!' " Susan said.
Scott exited as flames reached the structure.
"It hit me on the right side — just this incredible whooshing sound and this intense heat," Scott said.
The fire burned his right arm, leg and part of his face and ear, leaving second-degree burns on his arm and leg. He ran to a pond to cool the burns.
People on the property dispersed as danger increased. During the commotion, the Pitmans lost track of Baron.
"The last time I saw him was in the midst of the chaos," Scott said.
Susan and Scott were separated during the fire, but kept in touch by cellphone. Baron was nowhere to be found.
They eventually evacuated, in part to seek care for his burns even though hours later, they still didn't hurt, Scott said.
"I was running around on adrenaline," he said.
But several emergency responders said he needed treatment, so the family headed to the emergency room.
They worried about Baron, but Scott suspected he'd escaped.
"Animals run, and they have adrenaline, too," he said.
At the ER, they saw Park County Rural Fire District No. 1 Chief Dann Babcox, who had been at their property fighting the fire. Susan asked why he was at the hospital.
"And he goes, 'Dog bite,' " Susan said.
During the chaos, Baron bit Babcox behind the knee.
Baron is protective of the Pitmans and the property, patrolling its perimeter and checking out anyone stopping by, they said. They suspect that, while Babcox was yelling instructions to keep people safe, Baron got scared and bit him.
Babcox said the bite, something more than minor but not quite major, was understandable.
"He was just doing his job," Babcox said of Baron. "I felt really bad for him because he was probably more scared than anybody and was the most confused."
The Pitmans apologized "profusely" to Babcox, Susan said.
The fire chief and dog later "kissed and made up" when the Pitmans and Baron saw Babcox at a road block near Pine Creek, Scott said.
The night of the fire, while staying at the Livingston home of their daughter, Aleena Gibson, the couple, especially Scott, thought about Baron.
"Baron follows him everywhere," said the Pitmans' daughter Amy Pitman, who came from Missoula to be with her family.
"He's my shadow," Scott said.
Scott got Baron from Stafford Animal Shelter in 2004, about the time that the couple was downsizing after raising four daughters, including Angela Pitman and Anna Pitman, and son Patrick Pitman.
"I wanted a little old lady dog," Susan laughed.
Instead, Scott picked Baron — a very large dog.
Over the years, she and Baron have more than made their peace, including Baron sleeping by her, she said.
"But, given a choice, he'd take Scott any day," Susan said, laughing.
After the dog disappeared, Angela, who lives in Livingston, and Amy began working their social media connections via Facebook and other outlets along with help from Anna, who lives in California. Before long, tips about Baron sightings came rolling in.
"For dog lovers, I think it just touched their hearts," Scott said of the amount of help that they received via Facebook.
Soon, through social media, the couple connected with Livingston resident Maggie McGuane, who had been staying at her fiancé's Pine Creek area home when the fire broke out.
She and her fiancé, Chad Franscoviak, did not evacuate and were at Franscoviak's house the night of Aug. 29 when they heard a dog barking, McGuane said. The couple walked around to see if they could locate the barking dog but weren't able to.
McGuane was worried, figuring the dog was lost. Eventually, she checked Facebook and found postings about the Pitmans' search for Baron. She put the connections together, and contacted the Pitmans to let them know she thought she'd found him.
On Thursday, Aug. 30, the Pitmans met up with McGuane. They gave her Baron's leash and treats in hopesthat she could retrieve him.
The couple said that, because they left the Pine Creek area during initial evacuations, they weren't allowed back into the closed areas. Since she was already in the closed area, she could remain there, McGuane said.
On Friday, Sept. 1, treats and leash in hand, McGuane and Franscoviak went to the Pitmans' home. As Susan had surmised, he was waiting for his people.
"He looked really scared," McGuane said. "He was curled up in a really tight little ball, barking."
The couple called to him and showed him his leash.
"As soon as he heard his name and saw his leash, he got up and just started wiggling. His whole body started wiggling," McGuane said.
Not long after on the Pine Creek bridge, dog spotted man and man saw dog.
Baron pulled to reach Scott. Scott bent down with open arms to greet Baron.
"The look on his face, and he had tears in his eyes, and the look of relief was just a really beautiful moment," McGuane said of Scott seeing Baron.
The Pitmans and their daughters credited McGuane and Franscoviak with reuniting them with their beloved companion, saying McGuane has downplayed her and Franscoviak's efforts.
McGuane said they simply went to look for Baron because they sympathized with a family missing their dog.
"But, in retrospect, I would have done anything to get him that dog back," McGuane said of seeing Scott's reaction to Baron.
The Pitmans plan to stay with their daughter in Livingston while they assess the damage to their property.
In the past couple of days, Baron has shown some signs of distress, including being agitated if he loses sight of Scott, the family said.
But, besides the occasional whimper, a slight limp and some singed fur, he is doing well, they said.
Having him with them is a comfort, Susan said. Scott said having his shadow back with him is a joy.
"And you," he smiled at Susan, who'd joked she comes second to the dog. "And I've got my girls and my family."
The Pitmans said they're counting their blessings, including Baron, their home being spared and all of the help and support from neighbors, firefighters and the community.
They said they feel for their neighbors who've lost homes and had property damage.
As for Angelbell the cat, the family hopes she'll appear, though they think it's possible she did not survive the blaze.
"Maybe she'll show up, and it will be another miracle," Susan said.