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What is ammonium nitrate and why the concern over explosions in the Winston-Salem fertilizer plant fire?

Winston-Salem fire said the Weaver Fertilizer Plant stores about 300 to 600 tons of ammonium nitrate.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem fire crews are on high alert for possible explosions as the Weaver Fertilizer Plant continues to burn Tuesday.

The fire started Monday night on North Cherry Street in Winston-Salem at the plant. It prompted evacuations within a mile radius of the plant. Fire crews said people and businesses in the area should expect to be evacuated for 36 to 48 hours. The evacuation area has almost 6,500 residents or 2,497 households. 

RELATED: Winston-Salem fertilizer plant fire updates, emergency evacuation and shelter information

People are being evacuated over a concern of possible explosions. Winston-Salem fire said the plant stores about 300 to 600 tons of ammonium nitrate. The National Institutes of Health said it's used to make fertilizers and explosives. It's odorless and colorless. 

Ammonium nitrate dissolves in water and does not readily burn but will if mixed with combustible material, according to the NIH. It also accelerates the burning of combustible material. Ammonium nitrate produces toxic oxides of nitrogen when it burns. In addition to fertilizers and explosives, it is often used as a freezing mixture, to make matches, pyrotechnics (fireworks), and as a nutrient in producing antibiotics and yeast.  

It has caused blasts at other industrial facilities over the years.

In 2013, a fire and explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people and injured 200 plus. It also destroyed more than 150 buildings. The amount of ammonium nitrate at the Weaver Fertilizer Plant could be almost three times that amount, according to officials.

RELATED: Winston-Salem firefighters battle fertilizer plant fire prompting evacuations

They said drones have already captured many mini explosions inside building. Winston-Salem fire said there’s a very large explosion chance with the spraying water but it’s an even greater threat if they were to run out of water.

Early Tuesday morning, first responders drove through neighborhoods within the one-mile radius pleading with folks to get out and head to safety. 

Drone Video from the city of Winston-Salem

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