WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — An uncontrolled fire at a fertilizer plant in North Carolina continued to burn early Wednesday, forcing firefighters and thousands of evacuated residents to remain at least a mile (1.6 kilometers) away because there could be a large explosion (view photos in gallery).
“The possibility of an explosion has not gone down,” Winston-Salem Fire Division Chief Bobby Wade told reporters at a 4:30 a.m. news conference.
“We still have some active burning on the scene,” Wade said. “Conditions overnight have not improved.”
The fire is at the Winston Weaver Company fertilizer plant on the north side of Winston-Salem. The blaze began Monday night, shooting bright orange flames and thick plumes of smoke into the sky.
The fire quickly consumed the entire building and it collapsed. At least 90 firefighters had fought the fire for about 90 minutes Monday. But the risk of an explosion forced them to retreat. No injuries were reported.
Since then, drones and a helicopter have monitored the fire from above, and teams of firefighters have been on standby.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper plans to meet with local leaders in Winston-Salem early Wednesday afternoon and attend a news conference in the city.
It will be a “slow process” before the fire begins to run out of fuel, Wade said. He could not offer a timeline for when people can return to their homes and said fire officials planned to reevaluate the fire Thursday morning as the blaze continues to burn out.
The area that's been evacuated includes about 6,500 people in 2,500 homes, the Winston-Salem Fire Department said.
Wake Forest University, most of which lies just outside the evacuation zone, canceled classes and urged students in dormitories to stay indoors with windows closed.
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.
Authorities warned of smoke and poor air quality in the city of about 250,000. Matthew Smith, a hazardous material expert with a regional state task force, said the gases released by the blaze are more of an irritant than something that could cause serious harm, barring an underlying lung condition.
The fire forced the evacuation of the headquarters of The Truth Network, a Christian broadcasting company that owns radio stations in North Carolina, Ohio, Utah and Virginia. It also syndicates radio programs across the U.S.
The network is running prerecorded broadcasts instead of its live programming because radio hosts cannot make it into the studios, according to Truth Network owner Stu Epperson Jr., who lives in Winston-Salem.
But Epperson, 51, stressed that he and his colleagues are far more concerned about the firefighters and people who live nearby. Many listeners are praying for them.
“We’re just really praying for God’s protection and for nothing to blow up,” Epperson said. “Our prayers are going out to all the neighbors and residents and people at the fertilizer plant who have been displaced, and especially our first responders and firefighters."