Rain helps suppress fertilizer plant fire, but explosion risk remains

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Overnight rain helped to suppress an uncontrolled fire at a North Carolina fertilizer plant, but fire officials warned Thursday that it has also pushed smoke closer to the ground, creating a health hazard.

There is still a risk of an explosion and officials still want people to stay away, Winston-Salem Battalion Chief Patrick Grubbs said during a briefing. The fire has gotten a bit smaller, but there is still an active fire, he said.

“Our message has stayed the same the whole time — we’re asking all the citizens to stay out of the area and if they’re in the area to evacuate,” Grubbs said. Anyone with respiratory issues should stay out of the smoke cloud, he said, but the smoke also isn’t good for anyone who is healthy.

Firefighters asked almost 6,500 people within a 1-mile radius of a Winston-Salem fertilizer plant to evacuate after a massive fire broke out Monday night and continued to burn on Thursday.

There’s no projected return time for that area, Grubbs said.

Several hours after the fire started, Channel 9 could still see smoke hanging in the air 20 miles west of the blaze. Residents told reporter Dave Faherty they heard noise that sounded like explosions overnight.

Thursday’s rain also means that drones and helicopters can’t survey the fire from above, Grubbs said. Fire personnel are monitoring the blaze and watching for any changes in conditions, but they are staying about 300 feet (91 meters) away, he said. A fire truck at the scene is putting water on hot spots.

Grubb said specialists from several states are involved and air monitoring equipment around the scene is checking for different gases.

A 12-person team, including federal and state investigators, is collecting information, conducting interviews and reviewing drone footage to help understand the damage that has occurred, Fire Investigator Rick McIntyre said. An on-scene investigation will only happen once it is safe, he said.

Officials initially thought the situation could end in 36 hours, maybe even two days. But Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said Wednesday that there were too many unknowns to make any predictions.

The Winston-Salem Fire Department said the blaze began at Weaver Fertilizer Plant at around 7 p.m. Monday night. By 9:30 p.m., city and fire officials asked anyone living within 1 mile of the plant at 4440 North Cherry Street, near the North Point Boulevard intersection, to evacuate.

They said those residents, almost 6,500 people from just under 2,500 homes, should not expect to return home for at least 48 hours.

On Wednesday, firefighters said colder temperatures overnight had trapped smoke near the ground. They again warned people with health problems to stay indoors and avoid the area of the fire.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also met with local leaders in Winston-Salem Wednesday afternoon for updates on the fire.

Officials said they needed people to evacuate because of the dangerous fumes coming from the fire, as well as the potential for a large ammonium nitrate explosion. The National Library of Medicine says ammonium nitrate makes combustible material burn at a faster rate. When the compound burns, it create a dangerous toxin. It’s used to make fertilizers and explosives.

An estimated 500 tons (454 metric tons) of combustible ammonium nitrate were housed at the plant and another 100 tons (91 metric tons) of the fertilizer ingredient were in an adjacent rail car. That’s more of the chemical than was present at a deadly blast at a 2013 Texas fertilizer plant blast that killed 15 people, Winston-Salem fire officials said.

In a 4:30 a.m. Tuesday update, Battalion Chief Patrick Grubbs said at least 90 firefighters fought the fire for two hours and then made the decision to pull back once the blaze extended into a rail car behind the building. Grubbs said they couldn’t get water there and presents an explosion hazard.

After pulling back, crews used a couple of engines to pump water into the structure and drones to monitor the flames.

One resident said she packed up and left Tuesday morning.

“We heard like explosions last night. It was loud. And then this morning we had an alert on our phone telling us to evacuate,” Alisha Brown said. “So I just packed up everything -- no questions asked -- and I’m getting out of here.”

According to Winston-Salem’s communication director Ed McNeil, the Education Building at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds was open for anyone who evacuated from the 1-mile radius and needed a place to go.

“It’s flaming now so I don’t know if it’s gonna blow or anything, but I’m glad they closed everything up trying to keep people safe,” another resident said.

Wake Forest University canceled classes Tuesday and Wednesday because of the fire’s impact. The university opened three facilities for faculty, staff or students who are evacuating and are not able to stay with friends or family in a safe area. Those buildings will remain open all night, school official said.

The university said the evacuation area does not include on-campus housing, with the exception of Deacon Place. It said it did include off-campus housing north of Polo Road between Cherry Street and Long Drive.

So far, no injuries have been reported from the fire.

Firefighters said as the sun rose Tuesday, they saw a lot of smoke and poor air quality. Because the plant still has the potential to explode, Chief Grubbs said they do not plan to leave the area any time soon, and that it may be Wednesday morning before they’re able to safely return to the plant. But on Wednesday, the conditions of the fire had not improved and evacuees still could not return home, firefighters said. The blaze still had potential to explode.

According to WXLV, the plant has been in Winston-Salem for 80 years. It first opened for business in January 1940 and has employed hundreds of workers ever since.

This is a developing story. Check back with wsoctv.com for updates.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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