By Jim Newell
An explosion and fire shocked the south end of Orion Township Monday night after a natural gas main ruptured on the north side of Brown Road shortly before 10 p.m.
Witnesses as far north as Waldon Road reported they felt the ground rumble when the explosion occurred and heard what sounded “like a jet engine.”
Minutes later, a plume of fire and smoke billowed into the night sky, visible from miles away.
All of the accounts and video footage shot by witnesses showed the fire and smoke reaching hundreds of feet into the sky. What stood out in most recollections of the fire were the reports of the persistent, ominous roar of the fire as it raged unabated.
Orion Township Interim Fire Chief John Pender said a Consumers Energy gas main ruptured, causing the explosion on the 700 block of Brown Road, west of Joslyn Road, across from the Meijer and Target complex. The fire was behind the Checkers Drive-in restaurant on the north side of Brown.
The Orion Township Fire Department received the call of the explosion at 9:54 p.m.
“When our first crews got there it was just a gas leak,” Pender said, adding firefighters were assessing the situation and witnessed the fire start about two minutes after arriving. “It’s not common at all. I’ve never seen it before and the other fire chiefs I talked to said they hadn’t seen it either.”
No one was injured throughout the incident and there was little property damage.
“The most important thing is that given the sheer size and intensity of this fire that we had absolutely zero loss of life and zero injuries; that’s pretty remarkable,” Supervisor Chris Barnett said. “The immediate response and coordination of these agencies coming together was an incredible testament to our emergency responders and the situation they are called to. I am extremely proud of our department and our neighboring men and women.”
The fire occurred on an undeveloped piece of land, about 1,000 feet away from the nearest homes or businesses, said firefighter Lt. Chris Hagan.
Pender did say a few construction semi-trailers stored near the explosion did sustain some damage.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Consumers Energy was able to shut off the gas feeding the line. “Which is a great response time in a situation like this. Once they got the gas shut off the main fire went away because we cut off its fuel supply,” Pender said, adding that fire crews then had to contend with fires in the nearby trees and brush.
All four of Orion Township’s fire stations responded to the fire.
Fire departments from Waterford, Independence Township and Auburn Hills provided mutual aid support on scene, while the Brandon Township Fire Department covered the west side of Orion Township and the Oxford Fire Department covered the east side. Oakland Township’s Fire Department also assisted.
Firefighters and police did evacuate the nearby businesses and homes on Joslyn Road up to Judah Road as a precaution, Pender said, adding that the Meijer parking lot gave first responders a place to stage emergency vehicles.
Firefighters were able to clear the site about 3 a.m., Pender said, but did return Tuesday morning to douse flare ups and hot spots. “We expected that,” he said. “Our crews are still out there handling smaller brush fires.”
Captain Mel Maier of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Operation Center sent out press updates throughout the night, saying “The explosion and blast area encompasses roughly 30-40 yards around the crater. The blast exposed about 30 feet of the 22-inch natural gas line creating a crater 18-feet deep.”
“We inspected the site of the ruptured gas line and surrounding area and found nothing suspicious or unusual relating to an intentional act. We are not aware of any injuries directly relating to the explosion and fire in Orion Township,” Maier said.
While the cause of the gas line rupture is still unknown, Debra Dodd, a senior public information director for Consumers Energy, said the company will begin an investigation.
Crews need to shore up the ground around the explosion site to make sure it’s safe for investigators. The crater “is pretty sizable” and the pipe is “down about 25 feet,” Dodd said.
A Michigan Public Service Commission representative is on site today working with Consumer’s Energy, which said it will remove the damaged length of pipe and have it tested to try to determine what caused the gas line to rupture.
The line was a gas transmission line, a larger gas line that transports gas into (throughout) the state. The gas is then fed into smaller distribution lines to serve homes and businesses, Dodd said.
“We’re doing our very best to make sure that our pipelines are inspected as they are supposed to be and that they are reliable and safe,” Dodd told reporters. “They’re inspected every seven years, our transmission pipelines.”
The pipeline in Orion Township was last inspected seven years ago, Dodd said, adding that she did not want to speculate on the cause of the pipeline rupture. “We’ve been in business for 130 years, we have pipelines throughout the state. But again, this is a very rare occurrence.”
“This easily one of the largest fire in our department’s history and given its size I couldn’t
be more thankful that no one was injured during the incident; that’s the most important
takeaway here,” Pender said. “I would like to reiterate that the public around the immediate area and those surrounding are completely safe and we can continue with life as usual. Also, every emergency responder that came here tonight worked to the bone to get this incident under control and I’m so grateful for their effort.”