From our news partners at NC Policy Watch.

UPDATE: The Dec. 26 fire incident report has been discovered, calling it “an electrical failure which caused machinery to stop operating properly.”

On the evening of Dec 26, 2021, more than a half dozen Winston-Salem residents who live near Harmon Road, about two miles from the Weaver Fertilizer plant, smelled acrid smoke — so strong and caustic that their eyes burned and they had to don face masks to comfortably breathe.

Between 8 and 8:30 p.m., Jarrod Whitaker, a Wake Forest University religious studies professor, called the city fire department. Likewise, Bebe Kern Somerville told Policy Watch that at 8:35 p.m. she called the non-emergency number for the police. According to Kern, the person at the police department told her the source of the smoke was the Weaver Fertilizer plant.

“The fumes were even worse” than the recent fire, Kern Somerville told Policy Watch via email.

The smoke, the fire trucks and the lack of information heighten the mystery about the conditions at the Weaver Fertilizer plant, 4400 N. Cherry St., where 600 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored. The plant caught fire earlier this week, on Jan. 31, prompting a voluntary evacuation of more than 6,000 people within a mile radius because of the risk of explosion. Within the last day, the fire department has allowed people to return to their homes and reduced the radius to just one-eighth of a mile.

Ammonium nitrate itself is not combustible, but can interact with other materials and explode. In 2013, 250 tons of ammonium nitrate — far less than what was stored at the Weaver plant — exploded in Texas, killing more than a dozen people and damaging 200 homes.

So far, city officials have not publicly mentioned any previous fires at the Weaver Fertilizer plant.

“It was our Christmas Day because that’s when my son, Morgan, his wife, Christa, and our 8-year-old grandson Leon were coming here from Asheville to celebrate the day,” Kern Somerville told Policy Watch. “Late in the day we were looking forward to going outside with Leon to kick the soccer ball or go over to the Wake track and run around. I opened the door and the acrid smell sent me back inside.  It seemed poisonous and no one wanted to breathe it. We even brought our kitty inside.  We started texting neighbors and everyone was concerned and curious.  A fire truck came through and said they knew of no fire nearby. I called the non-emergency police line–always helpful for neighborhood information–and was told that yes, there was a fire at the fertilizer plant down on Cherry Street.”

“We could hear the sirens as they flew down Polo Road in the direction of the Weaver plant,” added neighbor Lynn Byrd told Policy Watch.

In response to a public records request, a person at the city fire department told Policy Watch there was no documentation of a fire at the Weaver Fertilizer address. (Policy Watch has refiled a request to include the entire 4400 block of Cherry Street, in case the address was mislabeled.)

Policy Watch has also filed a public records request with the police department, who said to contact the legal staff. In turn, the legal staff forwarded the request to the public information office.

“I was a direct witness to the smell of the fire,” wrote Christa Hamilton to Policy Watch. “I was personally present when the fire department arrived on Harmon Avenue. The resident that called the fire department also spoke directly to the driver of the fire truck. It seemed that the fire department was unaware at that time where the location of the fire was.

“There were a handful of people, including myself, who walked up Harmon Avenue to the intersection of Polo Road to see if we could get a visual on a fire. It was clear that something was burning. The smell and smoke were so bad we all had to use masks to breathe. When I turned around at the top of Harmon Avenue to walk back, the streetlights illuminated the amount is smoke that was infiltrating the neighborhood.”

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