North Carolina fertilizer factory fire causes fear of explosion, evacuation area

About 6,500 people were told to evacuate their homes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, due to a fire at a fertilizer plant that contained 600 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate, city officials said. said on Tuesday.

The Weaver Fertilizer factory fire started Monday night. Residents within a mile (1.6 km) of the plant have been asked to evacuate and stay away from their homes for up to 48 hours.

Winston-Salem Fire Chief William “Trey” Mayo said at a news conference on Tuesday that 500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and 5,000 tonnes of finished fertilizer were at the site when the fire started. Another 100 tons of ammonium nitrate are in a railroad car near the site.

If exposed to high temperatures, ammonium nitrate can cause an explosion. Fire officials say smoke from ammonium nitrate can also be an irritant.

“We cannot stress how important it is and how seriously people need to take this,” Mayo said.

No injuries were reported and the cause of the fire is unknown.

Firefighters responded to the call at 6:45 p.m. local time on Monday and battled the blaze for an hour and a half before they abandoned efforts to put out the fire due to the risk of an explosion, Mayo said.

“We’re in a waiting game right now,” said Matthew Smith, a North Carolina state hazardous materials expert. “As fire burns, so does the fuel.”

Pro Tempore Mayor Denise Adams, who lives near the facility, said she was watching television when she heard the sirens from the fire truck.

“Minutes later, I heard this huge boom,” Adams said at the press conference. “Then, about an hour later, there was another explosion.”

On Tuesday, a state helicopter will bring an anti-hazards specialist to the facility to assess the situation and take photos.

“Aside from this morning’s drone monitoring, this will be our first real daytime review just to get an indication of fire involvement in an ammonium nitrate storage area, ‘ said Mayo.

Officials are monitoring the quality of the area outside of the 1-mile radius of the facility. Winston-Salem residents with respiratory illnesses are encouraged to stay indoors.

Video taken from a drone shows some large plumes of smoke rising from the area.

An old unmanned fire truck was hooked up to a hydrant and used the water to ignite a train wagon full of ammonium nitrate at the facility, Fire Police Assistant Jerry Hardison said in a Facebook post. .

“The area where ammonium nitrate is added is not currently burning,” said Hardison.

In 2020, a massive explosion at a warehouse used to store ammonium nitrate in Beirut, Lebanon, killed at least 100 people and injured nearly 4,000, while an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas left 15 people were killed and about 200 injured in 2013.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Mayo said when asked to compare the situation in Winston-Salem to previous deadly explosions.

(Reporting by Akriti Sharma and Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Catherine Evans, Raissa Kasolowsky and Mark Porter)

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