Fire investigators in Montana are probing the cause of an early morning fire that claimed the lives of 19 horses residing in a barn at the High Plains Stables near Billings, owned and operated by Martha McDowell. McDowell competes as an amateur in the sport of three-day eventing and competed at the 2011 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, North America’s only 4* competition.

Billings City Fire Marshall Mike Spini said the blaze broke out just after 5 a.m. on April 23. All 19 horses residing in the 20,000 square foot barn perished, Spini said. Another 16 horses located elsewhere on the property were uninjured, he said.

McDowell said that the horses killed in the fire were of various breeds and disciplines, including animals used in reining and eventing competitions.

"They were all special horses," McDowell said. "The barn just went up so quickly there was no way to get to them."

Spini said the fire is under investigation by several agencies including the Billings Fire Department, Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department, Billings Police Department, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

"Due to the extent of the fire damage, the fire investigation will likely be ongoing for many days," Spini said.

While the probe into the fire’s cause continues, McDowell said her plans are uncertain.

"I’m not sure whether we’ll rebuild or not," she said. "We’re taking it one day at a time."