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KALISPELL - Arson is the most likely cause of a fire at an Evergreen fireworks stand that caused a spectacular explosion and unscheduled fireworks display about 4 a.m. Sunday morning, a Flathead County sheriff's detective said Monday.

There were no signs of forced entry, and no propellant was found at the scene.

But other signs point to arson, including the absence of any likely accidental cause.

"You've got a tent, nobody was guarding it … anybody could have got inside. And it appears to have started in a pile of boxes in the back corner," sheriff's Detective Pat Walsh said Monday.

No one was inside when the fireworks inside the rented 40- by 60-foot circus-style tent really started to pop. But there was plenty of time for an arsonist to flee.

The fire started slowly, and it took 15 minutes or more for the really spectacular explosions to occur. Exploding fireworks stands have become almost a tradition in the county.

"We've had one of these go up every year for the last three years," Walsh said. The other two fireworks stand fires were deliberately set: last year south of Kalispell and in 1997 in Whitefish.

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Some small change may have been taken from a cash register, he said.

Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department personnel responded to the fire on River Road, just off U.S. 2 east of Kalispell, about 4 a.m. Sunday. Fire Chief Jack Lingle said Sunday the damage to the tent and loss of fireworks could be about $40,000.

The Evergreen Fire Department sent three engines. Firefighters could see and hear the fireworks exploding almost three miles away, said Chief Jack Lingle.

"It was pretty loud from the time we hit the door," Lingle said. "It was pretty spectacular, but pretty scary."

The heat burned the paint off a car parked 12 feet from the stand, and melted the wall of a nearby portable toilet.

Tuesday - 6/29/99

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