A South Billings garage fire set off a loud explosion Tuesday as ammunition and fireworks ignited.
Flames broke out in the garage after a battery ignited gasoline fumes on the floor, according to a press release from the Billings Fire Department. An investigation determined that the fire was accidental.
The explosions at 41 Monroe Street were enough to keep firefighters at a distance, said Kevin Johnson, Billings Fire Department battalion chief. They shot gallons of water into the building. The gutters down the block flowed with runoff.
“Due to the ammunition and fireworks going off, we had to take a defensive position,” Johnson said.
Bullets in boxes go off more like firecrackers than projectiles, Johnson explained. The explosion, not the slugs, were the real concern.
The blackened inner shell of the building continued to smolder more than half an hour after the fire was reported. The charred scar of the burn curled over the head frame of the alley garage doors and licked the edge of a sagging roof. There was new smoke trailing from the attic vents. When the wind stirred, the spring air turned slightly acrid.
The fire is estimated to have caused $100,000 in damage, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Jaime Fender.
Johnson said the instability of the burned structure prevented firefighters from entering. A half dozen firefighters stood in the alley, which was blocked off by fire engines at both ends. There were hoses snaking down Roosevelt Avenue.
The initial blast was loud enough to be mistaken for something other than ammunition, said Sherry Katana, a neighbor who lives a half block east.
“It sounded kind of like a shotgun, but it was an explosion. It was loud,” Katana said. Her small dog barked in the direction of the flashing lights and red trucks.
Initially firefighters were told there was an injury related to the fire, but there was no one in the garage when firefighters arrived. There was an unused stretcher, half-reclined in Roosevelt Avenue just in case.
Katana said this was the second garage fire in less than a week for the South Billings neighborhood, punctuated by modest, single-story homes built in the 1920s. The fires were less than a block apart. The previous fire occurred March 8 at 115 Jefferson Street, less than 100 yards from Tuesday’s fire.
In this neighborhood, the houses are less than 30 feet apart. The risk of flames jumping to an adjacent building is real.
Katana said the March 8 fire also involved an explosion, which shattered the windows in the adjacent house. The heat melted the home’s siding and singed the building. The garage was severely burned. Property damage was estimated at $50,000.