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Oil well fire in western North Dakota burns into 6th straight day

Officials urged people with particular sensitivity to air pollution to reduce their outdoor exposure if they find poor air quality in their area and contact a health care provider immediately if they have trouble breathing.

A pumpjack is pictured at an oil well in western North Dakota. Dickinson Press file photo

KEENE, North Dakota — An oil well fire that started in McKenzie County on Thursday, July 22, was still burning on Tuesday afternoon, six days later.

Smoke from the well pad fire, which is located on top of a hill north of Keene and a half mile south of Lake Sakakawea in western North Dakota, is visible from many miles away, the state's top oil industry regulator, Lynn Helms, told state leaders on Tuesday.

The Texas-based producer Petro-Hunt, which holds the lease on the well pad, said the fire has been burning since around 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Three of the four wells on the site are on fire, Helms said.

In a status update to other state officials, Helms attributed the fire to the failure of a blowout preventer, a crucial mechanical valve used to stop the uncontrolled release of oil, though the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Emergency responders had contained the fire by Tuesday afternoon, according to the state's Department of Mineral Resources. Oil spilled on the site has been limited to the well pad, officials said, and the fire has not resulted in any injuries.


Petro-Hunt has brought in the oilfield emergency services company Wild Well Control, also based in Texas, to help extinguish the fire. Responders were working to remove burnt equipment and hot metal from the site on Tuesday and plan to kill the fourth well to prevent another blowout failure on Wednesday, Helms said, with an aim to extinguish the fire by the end of the week.

The oil well fire comes as North Dakota has lately experienced an extreme drought, on top of poor air quality caused by the drift of wildfire smoke from western states. Though well pads are insulated by dirt and gravel, fires in the dry grasslands nearby can spread rapidly.

Officials urged people with sensitivity to air pollution to reduce their outdoor exposure if they find poor air quality in their area and contact a health care provider immediately if they have trouble breathing.

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality said the fire could affect air conditions in the vicinity and encouraged locals to monitor the U.S. Air Quality Index .

“Air quality conditions can change hourly and may be impacted by local weather patterns — such as western forest fire smoke — or localized incidents,” said Adam Rookey, an environmental scientist with the department.

In addition to teams from Petro-Hunt and Wild Well Control, McKenzie County Emergency Management, McKenzie County Sheriff's Department, McKenzie County ambulance services, Keene Fire Department, the Department of Mineral Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality and the North Dakota Forest Service have all responded to the scene.

McKenzie County Emergency Manager Karolin Jappe noted in a statement that road closures are minimal but advised people to steer clear of the area to avoid interfering with the response effort.


Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at

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