A massive fire spewing from a fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina has led local authorities to issue an evacuation order for around 6,500 residents, with officials anxiously fearing the possibility of a massive explosion. That fertilizer plant was filled with around 600 tons of ammonium nitrate which, if exposed to extreme temperatures, can turn into a makeshift bomb.
The fire, which broke out at the Weaver Fertilizer Plant last Monday evening, was still raging Tuesday morning. Nearly 100 firefighters reportedly spent around two hours trying to quell the fire Monday but were unsuccessful. Fearing an imminent explosion would threaten their lives, the city’s fire chief ordered firefighters to abandon their efforts and leave the area. Now, the ammonium nitrate-packed plant and nearby residents find themselves in a dangerous waiting game. As of Tuesday, the Winston-Salem fire department told ABC News there is still about a 36-hour window where the potential for an explosion exists.
The fertilizer plant fire immediately evokes memories of a 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in the rural town of West, Texas that killed 15 people and obliterated hundreds of homes. In that case, the amount of ammonium nitrate on the premises was measured at around 200 tons, according to Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo. That amounts to around a third of the amount of the ammonium nitrate located in the Winston-Salem plant.
“If that doesn’t convey the gravity of this situation and how seriously folks need to take it, I don’t know how else to verbalize that,” Mayo said during a news conference. The department was clear that residents “within a mile radius of the plant” should immediately “leave and go somewhere else.”
Specifically, the fire chief estimated there were about 500 tons of ammonium nitrate on-site as well as around 100 more tons stored in a rail car adjacent to the facility.
Videos of the fire show the entire building engulfed in flames, lighting up the night sky, and sending plumes of potentially toxic smoke into the air. Other videos show first responders driving through nearby neighborhoods late on Monday evening, pleading with residents living within a one-mile radius of the plant to evacuate and stay away from their homes for up to 48 hours.
Though a major explosion has not occurred at the time of this writing, local residents and officials reported hearing several “mini-explosions,” late Monday night. All across Winston-Salem, residents have reported smelling the faint burning odor of spent fireworks, something officials say is a sign of ammonium nitrate in the air.
“We heard the explosion last night and it was loud,” one resident told local outlet WSOC. “We packed up all our bags, no questions asked.”
Early Tuesday Winston-Salem Fire Department Assistant Chief of Operations Jerry Hardison said the fire department had begun flying drones over the site of the fire to conduct reconnaissance.
Aside from a potential explosion, health officials are also concerned about air quality issues since ammonium nitrate in the air can cause itchy eyes, coughing, and irritated skin among other issues. During the news conference, Fire Chief Mayo said air monitors had picked up readings of 65 parts per million of ammonium nitrate in the air on Tuesday morning. While that’s slightly lower than the 100 parts per million threshold that’s deemed dangerous for human life and health, those readings were only captured outside of the 1-mile radius surrounding the plant. The exact air quality dangers for residents within the immediate area remain unclear. For those living outside the immediate radius, Mayo urged residents with asthma and other respiratory issues to stay indoors and advised against strenuous outdoor exercise.
It’s unclear exactly what caused the fire to break out in the first place. During the news conference, Mayo said an investigation into the fire’s cause would eventually occur but that the most immediate concern was in ensuring the safety of nearby residents.