Two explosions tore through a building at a fireworks facility south of Acton on Tuesday morning, keeping fire crews from around Yellowstone County busy for much of the day.
The first explosion at Evolution Pyrotechnics Manufacturing Inc., at 7788 Highway 3 North, happened at about 10:40 a.m. Employees reported that it caused the building to begin smoldering.
Firefighters had the blaze out by about 3 p.m., said Phil Ehlers, chief of the Shepherd Volunteer Fire Department.
The cause of the fire is still unknown, he said, and the investigation has been turned over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The plant includes at least four separate buildings and manufactures fireworks used in the entertainment industry, not the kind found at Fourth of July roadside stands, according to chief executive and president Anthony Santore Jr.
Sgt. Roger Bodine, with the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, said it appears the initial blast started “after something was mixed wrong” in the facility and ignited, causing what appeared to be a small explosion.
Everyone — five to 10 people work at the facility — got out safely, although a technician suffered minor burns, was checked out at Billings hospital and is OK, Santore said.
Crews from the Shepherd and Worden volunteer fire departments and the Billings Fire Department arrived a short time later, after sheriff’s deputies had secured the scene.
Fire crews kept a safe distance from the building, aware that it contained explosive materials, while figuring out how to attack the fire.
About noon, shortly after crews began spraying the sides and a roof sagging from heat damage, the building exploded. A bright flash and fireball engulfed the building, followed by a solid, deep boom and a huge plume of smoke that rose more than 100 feet into the air before spreading out to the east.
Smoke continued to pour out of the building until at least 1:30 p.m.
Between 1:30 and 2 p.m., the fire burned down enough that firefighters were able to approach and douse the building, Ehlers said. No first responders were injured.
Water tenders from Billings, Lockwood and Billings Logan International Airport occasionally left the site to refill before returning about 15 minutes later.
Ehlers guessed that at least 9,000 or 10,000 gallons of water were used.
There was “excellent cooperation from all the agencies” involved in responding to the fire, he said.
Employees, sheriff’s deputies and fire responders stayed a safe distance away, aware of the chemicals and explosives involved when the composites in the building ignited, Santore said.
“The composites burned rapidly and spread through the area,” he said.
The resulting explosion blew off the roof panels, which is how the building was designed.
“The roof releases all of the pressure and therefore the structure is still standing,” he said.
The exact cause of the fire and explosion in the chemical process building isn’t known yet.
“Most importantly, everybody is safe,” Santore said. “Right now I’m just trying to provide the fire departments with any information I can.”
Evolution Pyrotechnics Manufacturing was registered to do business in Montana nearly two years ago and built the facility one mile south of Acton.
When asked why he chose Montana for a manufacturing plant, Santore said he isn’t sure.
“Everything is shipped via common carrier. It doesn’t matter where you manufacture,” he said. “Montana is a beautiful state.”
Santore also owns another company, Fireworks by Santore Inc., based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Santore said he has more than two decades of experience in fireworks manufacturing and travels between Billings and Fort Lauderdale. He also operates other U.S. manufacturing facilities.
Last year, Fireworks by Santore won the contract to light off fireworks above more than 1 million spectators crowding into Times Square during New York City’s annual New Year’s Eve countdown.
But mixing pyrotechnics can be dangerous.
On June 20, two people were killed near Montreal, Quebec, when an explosion destroyed a fireworks warehouse. After the explosion at BEM Fireworks, a fire shut down a nearby highway and caused evacuations of homes and a campground.
And during San Diego’s Fourth of July celebration last year, a midnight fireworks display off some barges malfunctioned, lighting off all the fireworks in a single spectacular 15-second explosion.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators had waited hours to see the Big Bay Boom show by Garden State Fireworks, a fireworks display that was supposed to last 18 minutes. Garden State, an international pyrotechnics company started in 1890, also is owned by the Santore family.