It started with a loud Sunday evening explosion powerful enough to blow an 8-foot-by-12-foot garage door 30 feet away.
Then an unoccupied home on South Tonto Street burst into flames, fueling one of the biggest house fires the town has witnessed in two years, Payson Fire Marshal Jack Babb said.
The two-story building a studio apartment over a garage was completely destroyed but no one was hurt, he said.
The fire was reported at 8:40 p.m. Sunday, Babb said. "The explosion was the initial cause for the call," he said. "We don't know the cause of it; we're still working on that one. It could have been a gas leak the appropriate mixture of gas and air and an ignition source. But we really don't know."
When about 20 firefighters from Payson and Diamond Star fire departments rolled up on the scene, they found a small fire burning on the southwest outside corner of the building, Babb said.
"Within moments, the fire spread rapidly throughout the rest of the structure ... it burned away at the (support beams), and the building itself pancaked. So it was hard for us to get under the roof area to extinguish the fire.
"The flames went pretty high. The building is two-story, and the flames rose roughly 15 or 20 feet above that. So we're looking at 40-foot flames from ground level. They could have even gotten higher, because there are a couple trees near the fire, and some of the limbs ignited. We had to extinguish that as well."
Babb estimated that the fire was under control within 30 minutes.
Payson Police Officer Reed Watson was one of two officers who were first to arrive on the scene. He and officer John Heflin were at the intersection of Bonita and Colcord when the explosion ripped through the air.
"It was really loud, in excess of anything like a car crash; it was more like a plane crash," Watson said. "When I got (to the scene), I could see that the walls of the structure were blown out in all directions, kind of like a peeled onion. The base of the walls were still there, but the tops were leaning in all directions out, away from the house."
Within two or three minutes, Watson said, the flames had snaked into two of 25 to 30-foot trees, and were soon "climbing into the sky pretty good, threatening power lines and the next-door-neighbors' houses. It was pretty hot. We were a good 75 feet away, and you could still feel some serious heat coming off the building."
According to Watson, the resident of the primary home on the property told him that she had called Energy West earlier in the day and reported having smelled a gas leak. Watson said he never confirmed that information, however, and did not know if Energy West technicians had visited the scene prior to the explosion and fire.
Doug Mann, manager of Energy West, would not address that report Monday afternoon.
"I really can't comment on anything with the investigation still going on," Mann said. "We don't know the total picture out there yet."
The apartment was not being used as a residence at the time of the fire, said Babb, and there were no vehicles in the garage, which had been used mainly for storage by a former cabinetmaker and contained "a lot of his old materials and tools."
The fact that there were no injuries at all in the neighborhood, the fire marshal said, was due primarily to the fire's timing. "There was certainly potential for injury. But because of the time at night when the explosion and fire occurred, people weren't out milling around. They were inside their homes. Nobody was outside where they could have been hurt."
Following the explosion, some neighbors came to the scene armed with home fire extinguishers, but "after good but futile attempts, they had to back out ... so they wouldn't interfere with the firefighters or get hurt," Babb said.
A small outbuilding to the south of the structure received minor heat damage, and one window of the property's primary residence was cracked.
"I'm guessing it was from flying debris rather than heat," Babb said. "You can see where something hit the glass, and then it spidered."
The number of other buildings in the fire's proximity, called "exposures" by fire fighters, added to the difficulty of containment, Babb said.
"We had the homeowner's residence directly north of the fire building, plus neighbors to the south two different houses plus an outbuilding not to mention the trees that were involved ... But the fire fighters did an excellent job of keeping the fire in that building and not letting it spread out."
Payson Fire Department officials are still conducting an investigation to determine the fire's cause and origin.