Craig Herbert was at Insurance Auto Auctions in Lockwood on Saturday afternoon picking up a car he had bought when he heard a noise.
Herbert, of Billings, looked across the street and saw the start of a fire inside a former salvage yard that quickly burned out of control. It was about 1 p.m.
“It got big fast,” he said. “Within three to six minutes it was huge. You couldn’t see.”
Herbert frantically searched for Kelly Nelson, the owner of the property at 140 Cerise Road, but a 10-foot wood fence blocked his view. Finally Herbert spotted Nelson, whom he knows, who was trying to put out the fire with family members, and Nelson yelled at him.
“He said ‘call 911,’ ” Herbert said. “He didn’t have a cellphone.”
So Herbert called the emergency number and shouted for them to get as many fire trucks there as soon as possible because “it is going to be huge.”
Herbert grabbed a fire extinguisher to help wherever he could.
Black, billowing smoke could be seen miles away as the fire engulfed dozens of cars. The blaze exploded gas tanks, glass windshields and tires.
Lockwood firefighters responded to the fire and quickly called for mutual aid from Shepherd, Worden, Blue Creek and Billings fire departments. A truck from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation responded and help also came from Billings Logan International Airport Rescue Fire. A downed power line on Island Park Road stopped fire crews from reaching the fire from the west.
The fire has been classified as accidental, said Detective Frank Fritz of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office. A person grinding a car frame with an angle grinder in the salvage yard sparked a grass fire that quickly spread because of wind, he said.
Lockwood Fire Capt. Robert Guenther said at least three dozen cars and a handful of campers were a total loss.
Twenty-two of the cars were owned by Nelson’s friend, Dave Demint, of Billings. He had been storing the cars on Nelson’s property until he could get them into body and mechanic shops, he said.
“I was on King (Avenue) and 80th Street when I got the call that my cars were on fire,” Demint said. “I thought it was a joke until I looked back and saw a huge cloud of black smoke.”
Guenther estimates the damage to the cars alone may total upward of $100,000.
Nelson’s father used to own a salvage yard, Herbert said, and when he died, Nelson kept his own cars in the yard. A sign out front reads “United Salvage, The Old Car Store.”
Nelson collects all sorts of vehicles, many of them vintage, Herbert said. Charred skeletons of cars could be seen from the road through an open space where the fire had disintegrated the fence.
Nelson’s house, which sits adjacent to the yard, was apparently untouched by the fire.
Guenther said about three acres of property burned, including portions of a 10-foot wood fence surrounding the salvage yard. The fire burned power lines and singed mature trees.
Northwestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities were called out to the scene to disconnect power and gas sources that could have fed the flames.
“You never can tell what a fire is going to do,” Guenther said.
Next door, a pump house and three cars were burned after the wind swept up and carried the fire across a gravel road to Insurance Auto Auctions. An unoccupied house and garage were threatened, but were saved from burning.
Once the flames were extinguished, fire crews used gallons of foams to smother car tires, batteries and electrical wires. They cut down several cottonwood trees to extinguish embers that were smoldering on the treetops.
At one point, Sheriff Mike Linder warned people to stay away from the site of the fire.
“People going down there are impeding emergency traffic,” Linder said. “They’ve got to let firefighters do their job.”
Sheriff’s officers and Montana Highway Patrol officers were handling traffic control.