WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — 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. No injuries were reported.
Most of the campus of Wake Forest University is just outside the evacuation zone. The university urged students living in dormitories to stay indoors and keep windows closed.
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.
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.
At least 90 firefighters, along with emergency personnel from other agencies, fought the fire for about two hours Monday night, but they had to retreat because of the large volume of ammonium nitrate on the site, Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said. The fire department said that firefighters could not flow enough water to be reasonably certain of keeping 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.
Michelle Shepherd, who lives blocks from the plant, told the Winston-Salem Journal that after hearing and feeling explosions and seeing the flames Monday night, she didn’t wait for the evacuation order to leave her house and head to a shelter opened by local authorities.
“We felt big explosions. The entire house shook,” she told the newspaper. “And I looked out my front door and I could see the orange glow.”
Less than two miles (3 km) away, Wake Forest canceled classes for Tuesday and opened a campus building for students and staff who live off campus but had to relocate. The university said only one campus housing building was within the evacuation zone.
The Forsyth Correctional Center, a minimum security prison with the capacity for about 250 inmates, also is in the evacuation area.