BILLINGS — An explosion and fire leveled a Billings house and damaged several others on Wednesday, leaving debris scattered across a residential neighborhood.
Police, fire and utility employees were on the scene to help determine the cause. Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. spokesman Rick Matteson said natural gas was likely involved, but could not say what might have triggered the explosion.
The homeowner was not present, and nobody was injured in the morning blast, authorities said. Smoke continued to rise from the scene late into the afternoon, as firefighters poured water on the smoldering ruins and on a neighbor's house that also caught fire.
"It's amazing. Nobody on the block was home. We're so lucky," said Martha Mitchell, who lives directly across the street from the destroyed home.
Mitchell said she had left for a quick workout at a local gym when the blast occurred. By the time she returned, smoke was rising from her neighborhood and the area had been cordoned off by police.
Mitchell's front windows and garage door were blown out by the force of the explosion and the roof of her house caught on fire.
Gas and electricity were turned off in the area and residents evacuated from several blocks around the destroyed house, Billings Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said. Iffland said most residents would likely be allowed to return later Wednesday.
Matteson said an early report that a large rock fell from a nearby ridge and landed on a gas line was speculation.
"Nobody's gotten close enough to confirm that yet," Matteson said.
Authorities said the house belonged to Gary Woltermann, the mayor of the town of Columbus west of Billings. Woltermann only stayed at the house occasionally, neighbor David Orser told KTVQ-TV.
Billings resident Mike Whittington, 67, said he was outside instructing youths on how to cast a fly fishing rod at nearby Rocky Mountain College when the explosion rocked the campus.
"We felt the explosion. We felt the blast of air and we saw debris going straight up in the air," Whittington said. Moments later, he said, smoke began to rise from the site.
The home destroyed by the fire is in the same area as one that was destroyed by a falling rock in October. The houses are in a west end neighborhood at the base of large sandstone cliffs.