WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For the latest information, head to this story on the aftermath of the Weaver plant chemical fire.
The Weaver Fertilizer Plant fire continues to burn, creating a risk for explosion and endangering thousands of homes nearby. Winston-Salem fire officials said they plan to reduce the evacuation zone to 1/8 mile at 8 p.m. Thursday.
"We've got too much product. Too many unknowns," Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said. He didn't have a timeframe for when evacuees might be able to go home.
The 80-year-old plant on North Cherry Street has been burning since Monday night. Hundreds of tons of flammable chemicals are inside, creating the risk for explosion.
Officials still urge folks who live within a mile of the plant to evacuate as soon as possible. Mayo said logistically speaking, a mandate just isn't practical or likely.
"We have saturated the area with messaging through all means to communicate with folks that it is not safe and that they need to leave," Mayo said.
It's too dangerous for firefighters to be at the plant, because of nearly 600 tons of ammonium nitrate inside. Instead, firefighters are keeping an eye on conditions with drones, which have already captured several mini-explosions contained to the Weaver plant.
Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said in his 33 years of service, no fire has ever put him on edge like this one. He said if an explosion were to happen, it would be unprecedented.
“Potentially the largest explosion in U.S. history,” Mayo said.
Mayo said the deadly 2013 fertilizer plant fire in West Texas, which had three times less ammonium nitrate inside, should serve as a reminder of the seriousness of the situation in Winston-Salem.
"That [West Texas] fire and the resulting explosion, killed about 15 people and leveled about 100 buildings. The quantity of ammonium nitrate they had was 240 tons. When [the Winston-Salem] fire began [Monday] night, we had 600 tons on-site, so if that doesn’t convey the gravity of the situation and how serious folks need to take it, I don’t know how else to verbalize that,” he said.
Mayo said the Weaver plant passed inspection with the fire department in December 2021. Officials have explained the plant was "grandfathered in" to certain code requirements it no longer meets.
Mayo said the initial 911 call came from a Weaver employee who was on-site at the time of the fire.
Officials said all Weaver employees are safe, none are missing, and no injuries have been reported.
Fire officials said it could be a while before they're able to get inside the plant and investigate the cause of the fire.
Weaver Fertilizer company said it is working with first responders and investigators.
"We will continue to work with the community and the people who have been displaced," Weaver Fertilizer Spokesperson Andrew Carroll said. "That's our number one goal is to take those who've been displaced and get them back to their homes as soon as possible. The biggest challenge ahead right now is keeping them safe and worried about their jobs and taking care of them."
It isn't clear when folks could safely return to their homes. A shelter has been set up at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds in the meantime.
The National Institutes of Health said ammonium nitrate is used to make fertilizers and explosives. It's odorless and colorless. It has caused blasts at other industrial facilities over the years. Winston-Salem fire officials said drones have already captured many mini explosions inside the Weaver building.
Multiple agencies are helping including Winston-Salem Fire Department, North Carolina Hazmat, Greensboro Fire Department, Emergency Management, Winston-Salem Police Department, and Forsyth County EMS.
The plant has been in Winston-Salem for 80 years. It first opened for business in January 1940. It's employed hundreds of workers ever since.