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A fire detection system that apparently activated by mistake may have started a chain reaction that led to a blaze that shut down one of Michigan's busiest natural gas facilities during a record-breaking cold snap, a Consumers Energy official said Wednesday.

In an interview, Consumers senior vice president of operations Garrick Rochow said the company believes the blaze at that Ray Compressor Station in Armada Township started Jan. 30 after the fire-detection system in one of the facility's three plants activated, apparently perceiving a fire.

"There was none, but under the system, gas is vented out of the stack and for some reason it ignited and the stack caught fire," he said. "Following that, buildings two and three also tripped into firegate mode."  

The venting and ignition of gas caused at least two loud and visible fireballs that some witnesses mistakenly believed were explosions, Rochow said. The company is investigating why the fire detection system activated and why the stack caught fire while gas was vented.

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The blaze Jan. 30 crippled the Armada Township facility, which supplies 64 percent of Consumers' natural gas, leading Consumers to ask some large industrial customers to shut down and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to ask residents to turn down their thermostats to preserve a suddenly constricted supply during an extended period of subzero temperatures.

The Michigan State Police and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the cause and origin of the fire at the Consumers Energy facility.

In the wake of last week's crisis, Whitmer on Monday asked the Michigan Public Service Commission to review the state's energy supply and distribution systems and report findings by July 1. She expressed concern over the fact that the Macomb County facility supplies 64 percent of Consumers' natural gas output.

Nick Assendelft, a commission spokesman, said Wednesday the agency is doing its own independent investigation of the fire but had not made any preliminary findings regarding its cause.

Rochow said the company wants to get to the bottom of what happened, and how, including why the plants “tripped” into “firegate” mode and why a fire started in the stack, when the gas is supposed to vent without flames, into the air.

“We welcome some of the suggestions, such as the governor to the Public Service Commission, to review utility performance so we can have fresh eyes on what we do and improve natural gas service to our customers and make the system better,” he said.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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