An uncontrolled fire raging at a North Carolina fertilizer plant forced the evacuations of thousands of people as firefighters warned early Tuesday that chemicals at the site could cause a large explosion.
Authorities drove through neighborhoods and knocked on doors asking residents to leave within a one-mile radius (1.6 km) of the Weaver Fertilizer Plant on the northside of Winston-Salem, where the fire started Monday night.
Bright orange flames could be seen shooting into the sky along with thick plumes of smoke as lights from firetrucks and other first responder vehicles surrounded the fully engulfed building. The evacuation area included about 6,500 people in 2,500 homes, the Winston-Salem Fire Department said.
“We want to make sure that right now we’re evacuating everybody in this one-mile radius,” Winston-Salem Battalion Chief Patrick Grubbs told reporters early Tuesday. “There is still a potential for explosion.”
Firefighters had pulled back from the scene due to the danger of the uncontrolled fire, leaving behind an unmanned truck to pump water on part of the site, Grubbs said. Authorities were also flying drones over periodically to assess the fire.
About 90 firefighters and 150 responders from other agencies fire around 8:20 p.m. on Monday and fought it for about two hours, authorities said. But Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said fire crews were pulled back because of the large volume of ammonium nitrate on site. The fire department has 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.
Grubbs warned that there was going to be a lot of smoke and poor air quality. He said that it could take some time for the fire to come under control.
Wake Forest University released a statement asking some students in off-campus housing to voluntarily evacuate. The university also said it is working on long-term plans for those who do not have an alternative place to go.
The Forsyth Correctional Center, a minimum security prison with the capacity for about 250 inmates, also is in the evacuation area.
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 fertilizer plant was closed when the fire started and no employees were inside, local media outlets reported.
Grubbs said officials from the Weaver Fertilizer Plant have made no comment about the fire.
No injuries have been reported and the cause of the fire is still under investigation.