Huge fire at fertilizer plant threatens ammonium nitrate explosion in North Carolina; 6,000 people urged to evacuate

A large fire burning at a fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is threatening an explosion of ammonium nitrate as officials urge the evacuation of 6,000 people within a mile of the site, including some students at Wake Forest University.

“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,” Winston-Salem Fire Department Battalion Chief Patrick Grubbs said early Tuesday at a news conference.

“We have trucks, fire trucks going down every road on the (public address) system. We’re going door to door in some places and hitting target communities trying to get everyone out of the area,” Grubbs said, adding that sunrise will reveal poor air quality and people should only call 911 if “you are experiencing an emergency.”

The blaze began Monday night at the Weaver plant, and after battling it for two hours, the fire department pulled back its crews after fire spread to a rail car on site containing ammonium nitrate, which presents a risk of explosion, Grubbs said.

A fire truck remains at the back side of the building flowing water to the fire, but no fire staff are there, Grubbs said. The department is accessing the scene every 15 to 20 minutes using drone teams, he said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Grubbs said, and the fire department has been in touch with the company that owns the fertilizer plant.

At least 90 firefighters and up to about 150 emergency personnel have been working on the fire and to help evacuate the area, Grubbs said.

“We want to make sure that right now we’re evacuating everybody in this 1-mile radius. There is still a potential for explosion,” he said.

“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.”