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Associated Press, Published July 25 2011

Natural gas fire leaves 2 severely burned, another injured at ND oil well

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Natural gas ignited during drilling operations at an oil well in western North Dakota, starting a fire that severely burned two men, injured another and will likely burn for at least a week before it's brought under control, the state's top oil regulator said Monday.

Lynn Helms, the director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said the fire started Sunday at the site near Beach. The drill rig toppled during the blaze, and oil, gas and debris were still burning Monday, he said.

"They had just finished their drilling operation and it caught fire," Helms said.

Like many oil-producing states, North Dakota has no specialized equipment to battle oil well fires. Because of the costs involved, the state — despite its booming oil patch — doesn't require, it and thus the companies are unwilling to invest in expensive equipment. Helms has said state officials were going to discuss the issue, but no talks have yet been held.

Helms said the cause of the fire is under investigation and it doesn't appear that it will extinguish on its own. Well fire specialists from Houston-based Wild Well Control Inc. traveled from Texas and were slated to be on the scene Monday, Helms said.

"This may take most if not all of this week to put out," he said.

The two critically injured men were flown to a burn center in the Minneapolis area, Helms said. A third man suffered minor injuries.

Cyclone Drilling Inc., which is based in Gillette, Wyo., confirmed that it owns the rig but had no details about the blaze or the men's injuries, spokeswoman Brittani Piesik said.

The blaze is at least the third oil field fire in North Dakota this year, after two in March. Helms had said in March that the state's Industrial Commission was slated to discuss the issue of having specialized well fire equipment on hand. The panel includes Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

Karlene Fine, the Industrial Commission's director, said Monday that the issue has not been scheduled for discussion.

For two weeks in March, a firefighting crew from Texas battled an oil well blaze near Arnegard in northwestern North Dakota for two weeks before dousing it. No one was hurt. That same month, several oil tanks at a saltwater disposal site caught fire and exploded near Bowbells, also in northwest North Dakota. Authorities said the fire was contained on the site, and the Powers Lake and Bowbells fire departments allowed it to burn itself out. No injuries were reported.

Helms said the well near Beach was expected to be one of the top producers in the Three Forks-Sanish formation, which lies directly below the rich and better known Bakken formation. He said Tulsa, Okla.-based Pride Energy Co. is the well's majority owner while Enid, Okla.-based Continental Resources Inc. has a minority stake.

Though the well had been drilled, Helms said it had not yet undergone hydraulic fracturing, a process that uses pressurized fluid and sand to break open oil and gas bearing rock up to 2 miles underground.

"It's not flowing as hard as it could have been," he said.

All oil and gas at the well had been consumed by the blaze, but a protective dike has been built around the well to prevent any oil from escaping the site, Helms said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.