Fire at WPX Energy site nearly extinguished
FARMINGTON — Although a fire at a WPX Energy oil production site near Nageezi was nearly extinguished by tonight, residents who live in the area expressed frustration about the lack of available information about the blaze and the safety of the area.
The fire that started Monday night burned 36 oil storage tanks on a five-acre site off U.S. Highway 550 south of Nageezi. Officials are allowing the fire to burn out, and as of this evening, small fires continued to burn at four of the tanks, according to an update the company posted online.
WPX spokesman Kelly Swan said officials do not know when the fire will be entirely extinguished.
“Everybody is certainly hopeful for a quick resolution, but there’s just no way to pinpoint a timetable,” he said.
No one was injured in the blaze, but 55 nearby residents were evacuated Monday night. Most returned to their homes overnight, and 10 families were sent to hotels.
As the fire burned this afternoon, the 10 evacuated families were escorted to their properties to collect their belongings, Swan said. Those families also spent tonight in hotels.
The cause of the fire is not known, and an investigation will begin once the fire is out. WPX officials say the storage tanks that caught fire contained either oil or produced water. They were supporting flowback operations from six wells that began producing oil last week.
Swan said WPX and other organizations have been monitoring air quality due to smoke from the fire. He said the company has not seen data that indicates negative health effects from the smoke.
But residents who live near the oil production fire say they are unsure about safety in the area.
As the fire continued to burn Wednesday, Marie Chavez-Herbert, a retired Central Consolidated School District teacher, was looking in on her deceased parents’ property in Nageezi, which sits on a hill across a wash from the oil production site. Chavez-Herbert lives next door to the property and her sister, Loretta Chavez, lives on the other side.
Chavez-Herbert was visiting a relative in Albuquerque on the night of the fire, but said she returned the next day to see a “big black rainbow of black smoke that went across the highway.”
Her sister, Loretta Chavez, was at home Monday night when the fire started. In a phone interview Wednesday, she said that sometime after 10:30 p.m., a uniformed officer knocked at her door and told her to “hurry” and “evacuate.”
“I was half asleep,” she said.
Chavez said she heard “booms” coming from the WPX site and quickly drove to the Nageezi Chapter house. She waited there for a while, she said, before traveling to Upper Fruitland to stay with a relative. She has since learned some evacuees were provided housing at hotels but said she was confused about the evacuation process.
Both sisters said they are glad no one was hurt in the fire. But they expressed concerns over the lack of information provided to residents about what to do in an emergency.
“Nobody’s come to my door,” Chavez-Herbert said. “Nobody has told me about the fire or the air quality here or nothing.”
WPX officials told The Daily Times on Tuesday that the company has procedures in place emergencies such as this and is reviewing its notification system.
In one of the houses closest to the fire — an orange home on County Road 7890 south of the oil production site and across the wash from Chavez’s home — James and Clara Murphy, their children and four young grandchildren were getting ready for bed when the fire broke out. Twelve members of the multi-generation family live in the house.
During an interview Wednesday at the hotel where the family is staying, Clara Murphy recalled she heard an explosion at about 10:15 p.m. Monday.
Caleesha Murphy, one of the couple’s daughters, said she and her boyfriend, who also was in the house, quickly realized the family needed to flee.
“We felt the heat, the vibration on the window, pressure from the explosion,” she said. “My boyfriend said it was a blowout (at the site) and, ‘Everybody get out.’ That’s when the tanks were exploding, one after another.”
She said the family, many of them in their pajamas and without shoes, evacuated the house and got into their cars, but they stopped when they noticed a gas line alongside the road. They feared they would put their lives at risk trying to negotiate the road as flames and smoke soared high into the night sky and explosions rocked their vehicles.
Clara Murphy said they finally drove away and parked their cars at the nearby post office building next to the Nageezi Chapter house. From there, they began calling relatives as volunteer fire personnel arrived.
The family, which owns two horses, seven dogs, four chickens and two cats, asked the volunteer crew to check on their animals.
The family said they tried to enter the chapter house grounds, but the gate was locked. Eventually, an official arrived to open the gate, allowing the family to continuing waiting inside.
By 2 a.m., a WPX official arrived at the chapter house with water, Clara Murphy said. WPX offered to pay for the family to stay at hotel in Bloomfield, where the family arrived at about 3 a.m. Tuesday.
On Tuesday afternoon, family members returned to their home and were given 30 minutes to gather medication, fresh clothes and shoes and to check on their animals. Clarissa Murphy, another of James and Clara Murphy’s daughters, said the family found one of their dogs, a pit bull, and all the chickens lying dead outside the house.
Both James and Clara Murphy said on Wednesday that they are scared and uncertain when they can return home. They said they are also exhausted by the experience.
Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.
James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.