When the Backus Fire Department was called to a fire at 5:15 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, in Ponto Lake Township, firefighters knew to expect a deck fire. But the fire on scene was far worse and nearly fatal for the man inside.

"The neighbors told us he was in the basement," said Fire Chief Jason Smith. "Two guys went down by the basement door where it was fully engulfed. They could see him in the doorway. He got out as far as he could and fell down. They had to grab him and drag him out of there. They definitely risked their lives by doing it. I think in another minute and a half or two minutes he would have been dead or burned very badly. He was very lucky and very appreciative."

"We were told he was in the house," said Tyler Smith, one of the rescuers. "As soon as he broke the doorway we had one option. He was underneath a burning fire. The whole deck was on fire above him so the only thing we could do was go for it."

The conflagration was made particularly challenging due to the three feet of snow surrounding the building everywhere except for the narrow, plowed driveway. One firefighter who had arrived with his plow truck was able to make room for the tanker trucks that carried the department's supply of water as they fought the blaze for hours.

"The three feet of snow was a huge factor when it comes to fighting the fire in the driveway," the fire chief said. "The skinny, plowed driveway - if we didn't have a snowplow there like we did right away, we wouldn't have been able to get the trucks in there like we needed to."

The Backus crew was still thawing and putting away gear after noon.

The homeowner said he suspected the fire started with a container of ashes from his wood stove. The homeowner escaped without life-threatening injuries and boarded an ambulance on the scene for warmth and observation.

Firefighters Michael Peterson and Tyler Smith were responsible for pulling the man from the building. Peterson said he didn't immediately realize the gravity of the situation and that they were saving the man's life as they removed him from the building. He was too busy focusing on what he was doing.

"At that moment it was just what had to be done," Peterson said. "I didn't realize that was exactly what was happening."

Peterson added that it was a good feeling knowing they had saved someone's life, a feeling Tyler Smith mirrored.

"It's a good feeling. It's the job we signed up for. It was a spur of the moment decision that paid off," he said.

Pine River and Hackensack fire departments were called for mutual aid during and provided important support.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.