Continued investigation into far West End fires that sparked late Saturday night indicates that a microburst may have snapped power poles, resulting in downed power lines that ignited grass.
Initially it was suspected that a train colliding with a 100,000-volt power line started the fire near Homewood Park Drive, but by Sunday afternoon evidence pointed to a possible coincidence in timing between a powerful burst of wind, sparking, downed power lines, and the passage of a train through the area.
The exact cause of the fire will remain unknown until investigators reach a final determination, according to Lt. Kent O'Donnell of the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office. O'Donnell is the interim Yellowstone County disaster and emergency services coordinator.
"Initially we thought the lines were sagging, the train caught the lines, pulled them tight, and that's what snapped the (power) poles off," O'Donnell said. It appeared Sunday that the lines had not moved from wherever they initially fell, making it seem less likely they were tugged by a BNSF train passing through at the time the fires sparked.
The fires appeared to spark west of the railroad tracks and near downed lines.
Area residents near the site of the fire described winds around the time of the fires strong enough that they had limited visibility out of their front door because of dust and blowing debris, O'Donnell said.
"It's very strange, but we did have some significant weather activity."
A Sunday tally put the number of snapped off or damaged power poles at 17, possibly because of a domino-effect going down the line after an initial impact, O'Donnell said.
Microbursts can produce wind speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. They are difficult to spot on radar because they are brief and sometimes don't produce a strong radar signature, said Tom Humphrey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings.
After viewing photos of the damaged power poles, Humphrey said his office would review weather data to see if they could learn more about weather activity in the area of the fire.
Humphrey said microbursts occur when the air is so dry below a thunderstorm or rain shower that rain evaporates, allowing rain-cooled air to accelerate downward like a ball rolling down a hill.
When a microburst impacts, the wind generated typically expands outward, Humphrey said.
No permanent structures were lost or damaged by the fires, but two storage semi trailers filled with construction equipment, a fuel truck, a tractor, a boat, small machinery and bulk storage tanks were damaged or destroyed. Among the equipment and trailers, the fire also ignited propane tanks, O'Donnell said.
At roughly 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, the Billings 911 Emergency center began receiving calls "related to power outages, grass fires, explosions, sparks and fire shooting into the sky," according to O'Donnell issued Sunday morning.
Calls were coming in from locations ranging from 65th to 80th streets west and from Grand Avenue to as far south as King Avenue West, which O'Donnell describes in the release as "a large area with limited and restrictive access points."
Sunday afternoon, BNSF Railway Co. confirmed that a train carrying mixed freight headed from Laurel to Great Falls Saturday night struck power lines in the area of the fires.
"The crew spotted the power lines but were unable to stop in time," spokesperson Ross Lane said in a written statement. "The crew was able to spot the fire immediately and continued to move the train until they cleared the area to avoid any fire damage to the train."
BNSF crew members were uninjured as a result of the collision and BNSF dispatch "notified local law enforcement of the fire and suspended train traffic," Lane said.
Power loss was limited and all but one customer appeared to have power restored by Sunday, NorthWestern communications specialist Butch Larcombe said.
"We think that our line, we had lines down due to a storm that were near the railroad tracks," Larcombe said Sunday. "We don't have any information to indicate that the train snagged the lines, but we don't know exactly what happened out there at this point."
In addition to the Bilings Fire Department, firefighting crews from Molt, Laurel, Blue Creek, Worden, Shepherd, Park City, Columbus and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation responded to the fires after a call for mutual aid was put out.
O'Donnell said at one point the line of cars trying to look at the fire stretched for roughly half a mile on King Avenue West. Access issues to the fire were compounded by the traffic.
"Grass fires like this, minutes can really count. If we get a hold of a fire to start off, we can put the stop on it before it gets out of control," O'Donnell said. "One minute or five minutes is a big deal."
Law enforcement, including the Montana Highway Patrol and the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office, blocked off westbound drivers from getting closer to the scene of the fire.
The fire was 100 percent contained after midnight. Crews remained at the scene mopping up and monitoring the fire until about 7 a.m., Battalion Chief Ed Regele said.
Molt Volunteer Fire Department, Laurel Fire Department and possibly the Billings Fire Department were planning on patrolling the site of the fire throughout the day as long as no new major incidents demanded responding to, Regele said.
Daniel Brozovich lives on Century Hills Road, and reported waking up when he heard wind whistling through his window. He looked out and saw the hillside east of his house on fire.
"I saw the whole hillside lit up," he said. "That was too close for comfort."
He tried calling 911, but couldn't get through.
Brozovich then drove down toward the fire, where he found two Molt Fire Department trucks and several neighbors, but no water tender in sight.
He said he and a makeshift crew then grabbed shovels from the trucks and began shoveling dirt onto the burning grass.
The Billings Fire Department is anticipating the potential for fire starts Sunday, as red flag conditions persist. Afternoon heat could be followed by a cold front bringing high winds and dry lightning, Regele said.
Gazette photographer Casey Page contributed reporting to this story.
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