Billings firefighters and police responded to a fire Friday night around 8 p.m. at First Avenue South and South 33rd Street, where three buildings went up in flames.
The fire was at JP Enterprises Indoor Auto Auction & Sales, on the 3300 block of First Avenue South.
The fire started in a shed, where the son-in-law of the building’s owner said there was nothing flammable. The fire then quickly spread to the building next to it and eventually to the storefront of JP Enterprises, according to Fire Chief Paul Dextras.
Dextras said firefighters took a “defensive” approach to the blaze.
About 20 firefighters, four engines and a ladder truck, along with Billings police, responded.
Traffic was re-routed off First Avenue South after police blocked off the street in both directions.
The son-in-law of the business owner said two classic cars were inside, both ’66 Chevy El Caminos. He described them as family heirlooms. There were a total of nine cars inside, as well as numerous family pictures and personal items. He called the items priceless. The son-in-law declined to give his name at the scene.
“All I can do is sit and watch it burn,” he said.
At one point, the storefront glass shattered and firefighters pointed their hoses inside the store. Soon after, around 9:25 p.m., an explosion was heard and flames shot up in the sky.
The son-in-law said there were six oxygen acetylene tanks inside.
At midnight, firefighters and police were still at the fire. Fire hoses were still running and it looked like the roof had caved in at the storefront.
The son-in-law said the current owner had owned the building for about a year.
An onlooker at the scene, Randy Konzen, of Billings, shook his head as he watched.
“It’s a shame,” he said, “They finally got someone in there — the lot stood vacant for about two years.”
Candace Clark, who lives on South 33rd Street, said she drives past the building every day.
“I’d see people every now and then, and they’d have auctions every Saturday.”
“It’s really freaky that it’s this close to our neighborhood,” she said.
Tom Scozzari, a friend of the owner, said parts of the building were leased out to other people for storage. He said a wrecker company leased the back part of the building.
It’s not known if the owner had insurance on the building or its contents.
Dextras said the cause of the fire is unknown and that the investigation would probably last through the weekend. He expected the fire to smolder for hours.
The fire was the second on the South Side of the day.
Billings firefighters extinguished a fire in a residence at 214 S. 29th St. earlier in the day. No one was in the residence at the time, Battalion Chief Ed Regele said. The fire was called in by a passer-by, he said. The call came in at about 1:25 p.m.
By 2 p.m. firefighters were mopping up and ventilating the residence. The fire was in one unit of a duplex. The second residence had light smoke damage, Regele said.
The cause was not immediately available, but Regele said a fire marshal would be investigating. Four engines, a ladder truck and the battalion chief responded to that fire.