Officials say they are waiting for the fire to 'burn itself out'

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FARMINGTON — Thick plumes of black smoke billowed over U.S. Highway 550 today as a fire continued to burn on a five-acre oil production site near Nageezi.

The fire started Monday night at a WPX Energy site near the highway's intersection with County Road 7890. WPX officials said 36 of the company's oil storage tanks caught fire shortly after 10 p.m. Monday.

Five firefighting crews from different jurisdictions responded to the blaze, and three left this morning. The remaining two crews monitored the fire throughout the day, maintaining a half-mile perimeter around it, according to updates posted on the WPX website. Officials also monitored air quality in the area as smoke from the fire marred the sky.

Officials decided to allow the fire to "burn itself out" because of the intensity of the heat and the number of oil tanks involved, according to the site. Doing so, also helped contain petroleum fluids at the site, the update states.

As of 4:30 p.m. today, the fire had significantly diminished in size, with seven of the tanks still burning, according to WPX spokesman Kelly Swan.

Swan said officials do not know what caused the fire. He said an investigation into the cause will begin once the fire is extinguished.

WPX officials expressed hope the fire would be extinguished tonight but did not release a time frame for when the blaze was expected to fully burn out. The fire was 75 percent contained as of 8 p.m.

No one was injured in the fire, and Swan said a priority for the company was making sure the public was safe.

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The fire did, however, force 55 residents in the area to evacuate on Monday night, said Heather Riley, a WPX regulatory manager for the San Juan Basin, during a press conference this afternoon.

Riley said evacuated residents were sent to the Nageezi Chapter house as a precaution and most returned to their homes overnight, according to Swan.

Several families who lived closest to the fire were housed at a Bloomfield hotel. Although the fire appeared to be dying down this afternoon, Swan said those families would not be allowed to return to their homes tonight. An online message on the WPX website states that approximately 10 families are not being lodged at the hotel.

"Even if the fire goes out tonight, you’re still going to have a lot of heat around the site," he said.

Louise Murphy was among the residents who were asked to leave their homes on Monday night. She recalled today that she was watching a movie Monday night when she heard a loud boom. She initially thought the noise was caused by the wind, but then she saw flames when she looked out the window.

"I prayed to God that nobody would get hurt, and the fire would go down," she said.

Murphy said the gates to the chapter house were closed, so evacuated residents parked their cars along the highway until someone came to unlock the gates. Nageezi Chapter President Ervin Chavez said the chapter put a fence and gate around the chapter house a few years ago in response to vandalism.

After a Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community Grant School board meeting this morning, Chavez, who is president of the board, said the fire was still raging this morning.

"You could see flames still jumping up and down," he said.

He also showed The Daily Times burns on his arm from a natural gas plant explosion in 1986. Chavez said he was working for the El Paso Natural Gas Co. when fumes inside a pipe ignited.

He said he is glad nobody was injured in this fire.

“It sure brought back a lot of memories,” Chavez said.

Kendra Pinto lives in the Twin Pines area about five miles from the well site, along with her grandmother, sister and her sister’s infant child.

Pinto said she received a text message about the fire from a community member at about 10:30 p.m. Monday but didn't see the message until nearly 30 minutes later. Unsure exactly where the fire was burning, Pinto said she and her family decided to flee their home.

Once outside, Pinto said "a massive black cloud" illuminated by the flames was visible in the distance. Pinto drove to the fire with her father, a former firefighter, and watched the fire burn for about an hour.

"It was really scary," Pinto said today in a phone interview with The Daily Times. "It was so loud. Loud pops and explosions. It was tanks exploding. You could see light from the flames reflecting off of the smoke in two giant swirling pillars. It was chaotic, with people driving all around the area trying to find where to go. Some of these people had no idea how much they were compromising their safety being so close as the tanks burned."

Pinto said she was frustrated that oil and gas companies don't do more to coordinate with chapter houses and residents who live near oil and gas sites. Some community members she spoke with said they were told to go to the Nageezi Chapter house, but a clear emergency plan was sorely missing, she said.

"Shouldn't an evacuation plan or something like that be on a priority list, or is that too much to ask?" she said.

Chavez, the Nageezi Chapter president, said chapter officials did not have details about the company's plans in case of an emergency.

"I think we better start asking for a plan — their plan on how they’re going to address an explosion like this," he said.

Swan said the WPX has emergency procedures in place for such incidents and is reviewing its notification system.

"We certainly have a responsibility to be a good neighbor," he said.

He added that about a dozen people were working at the site when the fire started, and no one was injured.

"That shows that everyone did follow all of the policies and procedures," Swan said.

The oil production site that caught fire was a new development for WPX that included six well pads.

The company completed drilling the wells in May, and the new wells began producing oil last week, according to the WPX website.

WPX received approval to develop the site — located on a five-acre parcel of Navajo Nation tribal land — from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division in September and final approval to drill from the BLM’s Farmington Field Office in December.

The six new horizontal wells were drilled on a single drilling pad. Storage tanks that hold oil and produced water — the same tanks that caught fire — are at the well facility.

In a statement sent to The Daily Times this afternoon, David Catanach, director of the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, said the state agency is monitoring the fire.

"WPX Energy notified the Oil Conservation Division shortly after the incident began," Catanach said in the statement. "The (OCD) has been monitoring and gathering information throughout the night and today. Once the fire is extinguished, WPX Energy will be required to remediate the site in compliance with federal and state regulations."

Emergency crews from San Juan and Sandoval counties and Farmington, as well as New Mexico State Police and the Navajo Nation, responded to the fire.

San Juan County Commissioner Margaret McDaniel, who represents the affected area, praised the work of emergency crews and the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management.

"County emergency management have had a lot of issues to respond to this summer and have handled them all very well," she said.

Business Editor James Fenton contributed to this story.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

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