A fire broke out Tuesday morning inside a Box Elder ammunition plant filled with millions of rounds and gun powder, forcing nearby businesses to evacuate workers, schools to cancel outdoor activities and several area roads to close.
The threat from exploding bullets sent people in the area racing for cover, but no one was injured. The business — Ultramax Ammunition on 2112 N. Elk Vale Road — was a total loss.
A cause has not been determined. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the blaze, since Ultramax Ammunition is an ATF-licensed facility.
The fire was reported around 10:40 a.m. Around a dozen agencies responded, including the fire departments of Box Elder, Ellsworth Air Force Base, North Haines, Rapid City and Rapid Valley.
When firefighters arrived at the scene, heavy smoke and flames were coming out of the building, said Rapid City Fire Department Lt. Jim Bussell, spokesman for the incident. Bullets began exploding in rapid succession, and it became clear that going into the building would be too dangerous.
Fire crews met with the owner and management of the business, who provided information on how much ammunition and gun powder was inside. Because of the life-threatening danger from the projectiles, firefighters pulled back until they were 1/2 mile away from the building in all directions.
Nearby businesses, such as the Flying J truck stop, were evacuated and several roads were closed.
Skip Stanec works at the desk of the Black Hills Visitor Center kitty-corner from the ammunition plant. “I heard lots of pops,” Stanec said, “and occasionally there’d be a louder explosion as we left the building.”
Mid-morning, law enforcement evacuated the visitor center, sending away employees and even two visitors who were picking up brochures for touring the Black Hills. Law enforcement officers, such as from the Box Elder Police Department, Rapid City Police Department and Pennington County Sheriff's Office, helped redirect traffic.
“I wasn’t scared,” Stanec said. They cleared out by 10:30 a.m. and were back in the building by 2 p.m., around the time the evacuation order was lifted and most roads reopened.
Three schools near the ammunition plant — Rapid Valley Elementary School, East Middle School and Valley View Elementary — were placed on secure status for around three hours to prevent students from going outdoors and being exposed to hazardous smoke.
Recess was canceled for some students, but class was dismissed at the regular time, around 3 p.m., said Katy Urban, spokeswoman for Rapid City Area Schools.
Firefighters were working with Montana-Dakota Utilities to shut off natural gas service to the area as a precautionary measure.
The fire burned through a large supply of ammunition and powder, Bussell said, and was starting to slow down as of early Tuesday afternoon. No other structures were damaged, but the Ultramax building was a "total loss."
The ATF said a fire investigator from its Sioux Falls office will be in Rapid City on Wednesday to look into the blaze, along with the state fire marshal. The total amount of property lost in the fire was not immediately clear, said Kurt Wheeler, supervisor of the ATF in South Dakota.
Ultramax Ammunition, founded in 1986, is one of six ammunition manufacturers based in the Rapid City Area, according to the ATF. Ultramax's company website says it is "one of the ammunition industry's leading suppliers."
"We take great care with Quality Assurance to build accuracy and consistency into every round."
SIOUX FALLS | South Dakota's top tourism official is encouraging residents to take their vacation days as the summer visitor season gets underway.
Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said Tuesday that officials are optimistic about the summer, citing "sky-high" consumer confidence and increased interest in the department's website and newsletter.
Tourism is one of South Dakota's top industries. A study by Tourism Economics found that visitor spending in South Dakota reached $3.9 billion in 2017, an increase of 1.2 percent from 2016.
Visitation to South Dakota remained steady at 13.9 million visitors, a slight increase from the previous year.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard says officials are updating interstate rest areas and that there will be three new welcome centers for travelers. He says South Dakota's hospitality, warmth and friendliness will continue attracting and surprising visitors.
PIERRE | The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has proposed spending $8,125,000 that South Dakota expects to receive for air-quality improvements from the Volkswagen diesel-mitigation settlement.
The department scheduled June meetings in Rapid City and Sioux Falls for public comments and questions. Written comments will be accepted through June 15.
The state agency intends to use the money in several ways for reducing nitrous oxide emissions. South Dakota’s share is part of a national settlement.
The proposal calls for spending: 50 percent on repowering or replacing large and medium local-freight trucks; 10 percent on repowering or replacing buses; 5 percent on zero-emission vehicle supply equipment; 25 percent for diesel-emission reduction purposes, such as school bus replacement and repowering; 10 percent for administration; and five other categories wouldn’t receive funding.
The Rapid City meeting starts at 6 p.m. MDT June 6 at Best Western Ramkota Hotel and Conference Center, 2111 N. LaCrosse St.
The Sioux Falls meeting June 12 begins at 6 p.m. CDT at Ramkota Hotel and Suites, 1301 W. Russell St.
Written comments should be sent to Barb Regynski, Air Quality Program, 523 E. Capitol Avenue, Pierre, SD, 57501.
According to the notice distributed Monday, the Diesel Emission Reduction Act program historically “has worked with school district fleets across the state to perform diesel retrofit projects and support the early retirement of fleet vehicles.” It said children are “especially vulnerable” to diesel exhaust because their lungs aren’t fully developed and “they breathe twice as much air as adults per pound of body weight.”
Bus stops “bear a disproportionate share of the impact of nitrogen oxide emissions, since diesel engine emissions are concentrated at a small area with many people,” it said.
To read the state proposal, visit bit.ly/2IopO7h. The notice and other documents including funding requests from South Dakota government agencies and businesses are available online at bit.ly/2KHlXAF.
The state Board of Minerals and Environment is scheduled to discuss the topic May 17 in Pierre.