RYEGATE — An explosion on Friday took the lives of two Ryegate residents at their home. The victims, Curtis Allen Ronning and Christine Marie Debuff, were the owners of the Ryegate Bar and Café. Golden Valley County Undersheriff Mark Olson said Monday that Debuff and Ronning were in Billings prior to the explosion to get groceries for their café. When they returned home, they smelled gas, so they shut off the gas valves and opened all the windows in the home.
After attempting to air out their home, Olson said they went to their bar and café, and, according to people at the bar, Ronning had mentioned that his home smelled like gas or propane. Shortly after the two returned home, it exploded.
“I’m speculating that it was probably a time period of maybe a half-hour that they went home and closed the house up. There was a buildup of gas. We don’t know what transpired at that point. Whether the gas was underneath the trailer and didn’t vent when he had opened the house up, or the leak was so severe that when he did close the house up something came on,” said Olson.
The explosion was heard around Ryegate and even by a rancher five miles north of town, Olson said. Debris was scattered around town, but no other injuries were reported as a direct result of the blast, Olson said. He said that a furnace or another source could have ignited the gas, causing the explosion.
Two nearby residents who noticed the explosion tried to rescue Ronning and DeBuff but were not successful. One of the men sustained second-degree burns to his hand and a severe laceration when the roof fell while he was inside. The other man sustained second-degree burns as well. Both had to be pulled from the home and were taken to St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings. They have since been treated and released.
Olson stressed that people should always call 911 and leave the home if they ever smell gas. “This was a tragedy here. The community will certainly miss them,” said Olson. Olson said the cafe was bought in 2019 and had managed to survive through pandemic-related shut downs. Business at the cafe had just started to pick back up, he said.
"They'll be sorely missed. All hopes are that the Ryegate Bar and Cafe can reopen. We'll see what happens with that. Currently, with licensing issues and such being that the owners are deceased, my understanding is that they are working with the state to see how they would go about getting it reopen," Olson said.
Olson said emergency crews responded within 10 minutes to put out the fire. Responding agencies included the Golden Valley County Sheriff's Department, Ryegate Volunteer Fire Department, and Lavina Volunteer Fire Department. The fire is being investigated by the state fire marshal and the federal ATF agency.
Olson said he's been communicating with Montana Disaster & Emergency Services to start writing a grant to buy gas detectors for the residents of Golden Valley County. "Some people just can't afford it. Those detectors are expensive, I think they're $60 or better, and people have to buy groceries and they're going to buy groceries rather than putting money towards that, even though it is vitally important," Olson said.