Fire at North Carolina Fertilizer Plant Forces Thousands to Evacuate Amid Fears of Major Explosion

© REUTERS / City of Winston-Salem via FaceboFirefighters battle a fire of burning Weaver Fertilizer Plant on Cherry Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S., January 31, 2022, in this screen grab taken from a video recorded on January 31, 2022.
Firefighters battle a fire of burning Weaver Fertilizer Plant on Cherry Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S., January 31, 2022, in this screen grab taken from a video recorded on January 31, 2022.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 01.02.2022
The city of Winston-Salem is evacuating 6,500 people from their homes, inmates at a nearby prison and university students after a fire broke out at a fertilizer plant. The cause of the fire is unknown, but officials have cautioned that the situation is becoming an increasing threat as the plant holds between 300 and 600 tons of ammonium nitrate.
Nearly 2,500 homes have been evacuated so far, as well as 220 inmates from Forsyth Correctional Center, and students at Wake Forest University. The university canceled Tuesday classes and opened three other campus sites in order to shelter the evacuated students. Inmates were moved to the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, while the city has opened the education building at the Winston-Salem fairgrounds to shelter evacuated citizens.
Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo and his team were called to the scene on Monday at 6:45 p.m. local time. Residents, including Mayor Pro Tempore Adams, reported hearing a “tremendous boom” coming from the facility as the fire trucks made their way to the site.
While roadblocks have been put in place, residents within a mile of the fire are being urged to leave their homes for an evacuation effort which will last up to 48 hours. The reverse 911 call went out to households at 6 a.m. on Tuesday once it was discovered that the facility holds somewhere between 300 and 600 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate.
“The risk that is posed by this facility is that it stores ammonium nitrate… There is somewhere between 300 and 600 tons of ammonium nitrate in this facility… At about 450 degrees [Fahrenheit], ammonium nitrate becomes unstable… it can explode,” said Chief Mayo in a video posted to Facebook.
“Right now, the fire is still active, and there's still potential for explosion. We're asking all the citizens to evacuate the area for a 1-mile radius around it. We do not know the full extent of the time we'll be here. It will not be anytime soon that we'll be leaving,” Winston-Salem Fire Department Battalion Chief Patrick Grubbs said early Tuesday.
Chief Mayo compared the harrowing situation to a fire which broke out in Texas in 2013, when a fertilizer plant caught fire, killing 15 people and destroying 120 homes. However, unlike the current blaze, the Texas explosion only had 240 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to Chief Mayo.
Additionally, in early August of 2020, devastation occurred when a fire broke out in Beirut, Lebanon, at a port warehouse that held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate and killed over 200 people in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Drone images have already shown official images of small-scale explosions at the site in North Carolina.
"If that doesn't convey the gravity of this situation and how serious folks need to take it, I don't know how else to verbalize that," Mayo said.
Grubbs has said that there are currently no fire staff directly on the scene. However, a fire truck remains in place dousing the explosive fire with water while the department assesses the disastrous situation using drones. Some 90 firefighters and 150 emergency personnel are working to address the potential explosion while evacuating the surrounding area.
Mayor Allen Joines provided an update this morning, saying that evacuation efforts will likely be put in place “for a while” as officials have warned of poor air quality caused by the fire. They urge people to avoid being outside for extended periods at a time. According to the mayor, several local hotels and restaurants called the city’s office asking if they could provide any assistance in helping those who have been evacuated. Mayor Pro Tempore Adams has said people should stay away from the scene, but should contact the Red Cross for more information if they would like to help.
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