The Billings Police Department is offering a reward for any information that leads to the arrest of the individual or individuals responsible for a string of fires in North Billings early Wednesday morning, resulting in an estimated $75,000 in damage to three vehicles and a boat within a roughly two-block radius.
No one was injured, according to Billings Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Hoppel. The incidents were all reported Wednesday between about 4:20 and 5 a.m., he said, and were quickly extinguished by firefighters. They appeared to be confined to several blocks in the area of North 23rd Street and 10th Avenue North.
The incidents are being investigated as arsons, the police department stated in an afternoon press release.
About two hours after the fires were first reported, Misti Milligan, 32, gazed at the melted interior of her family’s Chevrolet Trailblazer, parked in her driveway on the 2100 block of 10th Avenue North. One of the seats had all but vanished into pools of molten plastic.
“I think there’s a special place in hell reserved for someone who sets a vehicle on fire with a (child’s) car seat in it,” Milligan said.
She and her husband were woken up by firefighters pounding on the door of their home at about 5 a.m., she said. The SUV, engulfed in flames where it sat parked next to their house, was spotted by a fire crew as they were leaving the scene of another fire nearby, she said.
The couple’s young daughter was also home with them when the fire broke out, and despite the fact that their “full” insurance policy for their totaled Trailblazer doesn’t appear to cover the fire damage, she's relieved that the blaze didn’t spread to their house, garage or camper — all of which were apparently unscathed, just feet from the burning vehicle.
“We’re super lucky that they saw the fire,” Milligan said. “If it had spread to the house, it would have been horrible.”
With a laugh, she noted that her dog — barking excitedly in the backyard about two hours later — had remained uncharacteristically silent when the vehicle ignited, despite being outside at the time.
Tim Hawkins’ fully restored, 1978 Sleekcraft motor boat appeared to be the first reported casualty of Wednesday morning’s fires.
Standing outside his duplex apartment as Billings police detectives and fire investigators took photographs of the blackened vessel, Hawkins, 26, said he assumes the fire was the result of arson, but has no idea why anyone would have targeted him.
“It’s definitely weird,” he said. “You definitely never expect that to happen to you.”
Mazie Kilgore, 23, who lives with Hawkins on the 2200 block of 10th Avenue North, said she was the first to wake up when someone started banging on the couple’s front door and yelling. She woke up Hawkins, she said, then ran to grab their daughter and get her outside.
“It’s just so scary, waking up at like 4:20 in the morning and someone telling us the house is on fire,” Kilgore said.
Hawkins ran outside to move his truck out into the street, and said he could see flames soaring as high as the roof of the house. Two hours later, the blaze appeared to have been mostly confined to his boat, but pieces of vinyl siding on the front of the garage were visibly twisted and wrinkled from the intense heat. His neighbor’s camper, parked next to the motor boat, appeared to have sustained heat damage as well.
A couple of his other neighbors were awakened by an explosion just before the couple was roused by the passerby pounding on the front door, Hawkins added, once the fire reached the vessel’s fuel tank.
Firefighters arrived minutes after they fled the house, he said, and he could hear additional calls coming over the crew’s radios as additional fires broke out on the surrounding blocks.
At one point, the couple could see smoke rising over the houses and trees to the south, apparently from a blue Ford Bronco that had also caught fire just around the corner on the 900 block of North 23rd Street.
Both Hawkins and Kilgore said they were shaken by the incident and disappointed by the loss of the boat, worth about $3,600, but ultimately thankful no one was hurt.
“After thinking about it, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Hawkins said. “It’s out of my control.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Billings police Lt. Neil Lawrence said no arrests had been made in connection to the alleged arsons, and no suspects had been identified.
The department is asking the public for "any credible information that leads to the arrest of the individual or individuals responsible for multiple arsons that occurred in Billings earlier today," according to the release. The Crime Stoppers website lists the reward amount as "up to $1,000."
Anyone with information on the fires is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 406-245-6660 or the Billings Police Department Detective Division at 406-657-8473.