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Bonfire burn victim warned woman not to throw alcohol on flames

MISSOULA -- The 19-year-old burn victim from last weekend's bonfire explosion is in critical condition and will undergo a skin-graft surgery Thursday at the University of Utah burn unit, the victim's father said Wednesday.

Steve Keller said his son, Mat Keller, was at a gathering early Sunday morning in the 600 block of South Fifth Street East when the resident of the home poured denatured alcohol on the dwindling fire. Mat was sitting next to the fire on a couch or an outdoor chair, but wasn't drinking, Steve said.

"Mat told her that it was a dumb thing to do and wasn't smart," he explained. "And then she poured the rest of it into the fire and the fire blew up. Before he knew what happened, he was on fire."

Mat, who had just finished his first year at the University of Montana studying business and accounting, suffered second degree burns on his legs, hands, face and head.

He was taken to a Missoula hospital and Steve, who lives in Great Falls, was called immediately with the terrible news.

"They indicated that he had been in the ER for about eight minutes and they decided to fly him to the University of Utah," he said.

Keller said it's too early to know his son's prognosis, but he was complimentary of the medical professionals treating his son at the hospital.

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It's unclear why police weren't initially called to the scene, but Steve Keller reported the incident to law enforcement on Monday afternoon after "hearing from Mat's friends the same story - that this woman was throwing accelerant on this fire after being told not to."

He found out later his son was the person telling the woman not to throw the alcohol on the fire.

"I made the call (to police) before I even knew that," he said.

For now, he is waiting for police to investigate the incident and concentrating on getting his son in stable condition. He didn't comment on whether the family was considering filing a civil lawsuit.

According to the University of Montana Office of Public Safety director Marty Ludemann, the home where the woman lives with her roommate is not technically on UM's campus, but is owned by the university and rented to students and faculty.

Except for a few exceptions for special events, open burning is not allowed on campus or at the rental homes the university rents, explained communications director Peggy Kuhr.

"For the UM rental houses - which are off campus - the lease agreement that renters sign specifies that there is no smoking on the premises, no open burning and no burning of candles," she wrote in an email Wednesday.

Under city ordinance, it's illegal to have a bonfire within the city limits without a permit from the Health Department or the City Fire Department.

It's unknown if the woman or the woman's roommate had received a burn permit from the city in order to legally have a bonfire.

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