More families return home 1 week after Winston-Salem fertilizer plant fire

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Some of the families evacuated from their homes when a fertilizer plant caught fire in Winston-Salem have now been allowed to go back home.

The evacuation zone around the plant has shrunk from a radius of 1 mile down to 275 feet. This went into effect at 8 p.m. Sunday, meaning some families woke up in their own beds Monday morning for the first time in a week.

The fire is still burning at the fertilizer plant, but experts said the risk of explosion has greatly reduced because much of the combustible chemical at the plant has burned off.

Initially, it was even unsafe for firefighters to try and extinguish the flames. However, they have been spraying down hotspots for several days.

This fire is not the first at the fertilizer plant. In fact, Winston-Salem officials confirmed Saturday that firefighters responded to a call in late December about a smoldering pile of "fertilizer material" at the same plant

Winston-Salem firefighters were called to the Winston Weaver Co. plant on Dec. 26, according to an incident report released by the fire department and obtained by the Winston-Salem Journal in response to a public records request.

Nearby residents called 911 and reported seeing haze and smelling smoke in the area around the plant. Firefighters dispatched to the plant noted "a haze coming from the top of the building."

"Employees at the business met Engine 8, stating that a pile of fertilizer material was smoldering," the seven-page reports says, adding that the first firefighters inside the building determined there was "no risk of explosion" and flooded the area with water.

The report blamed the incident on an electrical failure which caused machinery to stop operating properly.

"The pile of material was smoldering due to equipment used in the manufacturing process dropping hot materials into the pile," the report said. "At no point did the pile produce any flames or fire damage."

Adam Parrish, a spokesperson for Winston Weaver, declined to comment to the newspaper on Saturday.

Rick McIntyre is the lead investigator on the massive fertilizer plant fire that started Monday night. In a Thursday morning briefing, McIntyre said Winston Weaver Co. has had minor fires "within the past couple years." He said those occurred in electrical equipment. McIntyre did not mention a December fire.

Officials on Thursday also said that the explosion threat from the fire had "greatly diminished" since much of a combustible chemical had burned off, allowing firefighters to return to the site to spray down what's left.

Residents living in the vicinity of the fire suspected the December fire was a precursor of the most recent event.

"It was just like what we're smelling now," said Jarrod Whitaker, who lives near the plant.

When they learned about the potential for a massive explosion at the plant, Whitaker and Wilson Somerville, another nearby resident, exchanged texts in which they recalled the December fire. Somerville said he wants to know if there's a link between the fire on Dec. 26 and the much larger one on Monday.

"As you can imagine, I and other neighbors wish a very thorough investigation not only of the current fire, but of the previous fire, and given the two fires, a thorough check of whether there was an issue at the plant that had been going on a while," Somerville wrote in an email.

On Saturday, Winston-Salem city leaders warned the public to stay out of creeks downstream from the plant and to keep pets and other animals out of the creeks due to elevated levels of chemicals in the water resulting from the fire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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