Winston-Salem fertilizer plant fire: Thousands forced to flee homes over explosion fears
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - A fire raging at a fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, forced the evacuation of thousands of people early Tuesday amid fears that chemicals at the facility could cause a large explosion.
The fire was reported at just before 7 p.m. Monday at the Weaver Fertilizer Plant on the northside of the city, according to FOX 8. Officials asked residents located within a one-mile radius of the site to leave their homes, which included about 6,500 people in 2,500 homes.
No injuries were reported.
The city's fire chief said later Tuesday that the fire had been "relatively static" overnight, but with 600 tons of combustible ammonium nitrate stored at the site, the risk of an explosion would remain through Wednesday.
"We’ve got about a 36-hour window where that explosion potential exists," Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo told reporters.
Wake Forest University, most of which lies just outside the evacuation zone, canceled classes and urged students living in dormitories to stay indoors and keep windows closed.
Flames are seen shooting from the Weaver Fertilizer Plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Feb. 1, 2022. (Credit: WFMY-TV)
Videos from the scene showed flames and thick plumes of smoke shooting from the plant, as fire trucks surrounded the building. About 90 firefighters and 150 responders from other agencies descended on the scene Monday evening and fought it for about two hours, authorities said.
But Mayo said fire crews were pulled back because of the large volume of ammonium nitrate. The fire department said that firefighters could not flow enough volume of water to be reasonably certain that they could keep it cool enough to prevent a detonation. Firefighters instead left behind an unmanned truck to pump water on part of the site.
Authorities were also flying drones over periodically to assess the fire.
The fertilizer plant was closed when the fire started and no employees were inside, local media outlets reported.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Mayo told reporters earlier Tuesday that an estimated 500 tons of the combustible chemical used in fertilizer were housed at the plant and another 100 tons were in a rail car adjacent to it. He said that is more ammonium nitrate than was present at a deadly blast at a 2013 Texas fertilizer plant blast that killed 15 people, most of them emergency personnel.
"So if that doesn’t convey the gravity of the situation and how serious folks need to take it, I don’t know how else to verbalize that," he said of the comparison.
Mayo said the chemical generally needs to be in a confined space to explode, so the risk will depend on whether the material is stacked deep enough for the top layers to put enough pressure on the bottom layers.
Authorities warned of smoke and poor air quality in the city of about 250,000, which is located in the north-central part of the state. Matthew Smith, a hazardous material expert with a regional state task force, said the gases released by the blaze are considered more of an irritant than something that could seriously harm someone unless they have an underlying lung condition.
Winston-Salem officials said a shelter has been set up at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds. People who have evacuated should plan to be away from their homes for up to 48 hours.
The Forsyth Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison with a capacity for about 250 inmates, is in the evacuation area. City officials said the prisoners and staff were moved to Alexander Correctional Facility, according to FOX 8.
North Hills Elementary School is within the evacuation zone as well and opted for a remote-learning day. While no other schools in the district were affected, officials told parents to anticipate late busses or other traffic delays.
A representative from the Winston Weaver Company didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.