DroneSense Blog

Case Study: The Weaver Fertilizer Fire

We invited the Lewisville Fire Department to recap the events around the Winston Salem fertilizer plant fire this past January, considered to be one of the worst explosions in U.S. history. The story below is their account of the fire. 

On the evening Jan. 31, 2022, the Lewisville Fire Department Drone Team was requested by Emergency Management to assist the Winston Salem Fire Department with a large structure fire at the Weaver Fertilizer plant in Winston Salem, NC.

Weaver Fertilizer fire

Upon arrival, we met with Emergency Management, got a brief rundown of their needs and established an initial Landing Zone approximately 1/4 mile from the Fire. This Landing Zone happens to be in controlled airspace, near a prison, so after some challenges getting our drone QEP unlocked, we were able to get a drone in the air to provide some initial visual awareness of the size of the fire. We had previously built shareable missions in DroneSense, thus we were able to quickly share the QR code and web link to Emergency Management.

We were soon joined by Winston Salem Police Department and Greensboro Fire Department. Since Greensboro was already a DroneSense user, we were able to share our Mission Code with them. With the help of Greensboro Fire Department Drone Team, we added Winston Salem PD to DroneSense, got them into the Mission, now we had 3 teams able to stream back to Fire Command.

Because of the amount of product, 600 tons of Ammonium Nitrate on the ground as well as a railroad car containing 90 tons of 34% ammonium nitrate, the Winston Salem Fire Department made the decision to issue a 1-mile evacuation and moved the Command Post. We also moved our Landing Zone to the Winston Salem Police Department Special Operations Headquarters, a little over 1/2 mile from the scene.

DroneSense software used during the fire

We were joined at this location by Forsyth County Sheriff’s office who had just joined DroneSense within the week. These four teams worked together and flew all night. For the first two days of the fire, there were no fireman at the scene and the only way for the command post to know the progress of the fire was the drone flights.

Very soon into the event, we notified DroneSense what was going on and got the blessing to add whatever teams and aircraft we needed to complete the mission. They even offered to send technical support to Winston Salem, if we needed it.

For the next 5 days, drone flights continued over the burn site. About 40 hours into the event, the smoke had changed directions and we were able to get a drone team close enough to give the Hazmat Team and Command Post a clear picture of the railcar and well as temperature readings of the car and surrounding area. These flights allowed the Fire Command to make the tactical decision that it was safe to send some firefighters in to examine the railcar.

This 6-day event truly highlighted the importance of drones in the Fire Service. It also underscored the importance of a secure data streaming platform, DroneSense.

Aftermath of the fire

It was an honor to work alongside our brothers and sisters at Winston Salem Fire Department to provide them the necessary live video to make critical tactical decisions. We also can’t say enough thanks to our partner Drone teams: Greensboro Fire Department, Winston Salem Police Department, Forsyth County Sheriff Office, Durham Fire Department, Harnett County Emergency Services and Alamance County Emergency Management.

Briefing in the command center

This mission could not have been pulled off without some valuable partners:

DroneSense – the BEST streaming platform that allowed us to provide situational awareness live streaming video to the command post, command officers and critical personnel both onsite and remotely assisting.

UVT for their technical support from the very beginning of the incident. They always answered their phone no matter what time of day or night.

DJI who manufactures some of the best UAV airframes on the market for our application.