Near N. Carolina's fertilizer plant fire, thousands flee their homes

WINSTON-SALEM (N.C.) -- A fire erupted at a North Carolina fertilizer factory, forcing thousands to be evacuated. Firefighters warned that chemicals could cause a major explosion early Tuesday.

Near N. Carolina's fertilizer plant fire, thousands flee their homes

Residents were asked to evacuate the Winston Weaver Company fertilizer facility on the north side of Winston-Salem by authorities who drove through the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking them to leave the area within one-mile (1.6 km) of where the fire broke out Monday night. There were no injuries.

The evacuation zone is not a problem for most of Wake Forest University's campus. Students living in dormitories were asked by the university to keep their windows shut and stay indoors.

As firetrucks and other first response vehicles lit up the scene, bright orange flames were visible shooting into the sky. According to the Winston-Salem Fire Department, there were approximately 6,500 people living in 2,500 homes.

Winston-Salem Battalion Chief Patrick Grubbs stated to reporters Tuesday morning, "We want make sure that right now [we're] evacuating everyone in this one-mile radius," he said. "There's still the possibility of an explosion."

Grubbs stated that firefighters had left the area due to the risk of uncontrolled fire and left behind an unmanned truck to water the area. To assess the fire, authorities were flying drones periodically.

Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo stated that at least 90 firefighters and emergency personnel from other agencies fought the fire for approximately two hours Monday night. However, they were forced to leave the area by the high concentration of ammonium-nitrate. According to the fire department, firefighters couldn't flow enough water to keep it cool enough to avoid a detonation.

Grubbs warned of the dangers of excessive smoke and poor air quality in the central region of the state, which is home to about 250,000 people. Grubbs said it might take some time before the fire is under control.

Michelle Shepherd, a neighbor of the plant, said that she was moved blocks away by the explosions and saw the flames Monday night and didn't wait to be evacuated. She immediately left her home and headed to a shelter provided by the local authorities.

"We felt big explosions. She told the newspaper that her entire house shaken. "And I looked out the front door, and I could see an orange glow."

Wake Forest, located less than 2 miles (3 kilometers) from campus, cancelled Tuesday's classes and opened a new campus building for staff and students who have had to move. According to the university, only one campus housing unit was in the evacuation zone.

The evacuation area also includes the Forsyth Correctional Center which is a minimum security prison that can hold approximately 250 inmates.

Officials from Winston-Salem said that a shelter was set up at Winston-Salem Fairgrounds. People who evacuated should expect to be away for 48 hours.

Local media outlets reported that the fertilizer plant was shut down at the time of the fire and that no employees were present.

An email to Winston Weaver Company asking for comment was not immediately answered by a representative. According to the battalion chief, fire officials were in touch with Winston Weaver Company but had not yet provided any comments.

According to the company's website, it stated that the Winston-Salem facility has been in operation since 1940.

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