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Bitter cold stretches across Midwest; oil workers in North Dakota grin and endure

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BISMARCK, N.D. - Some people were choosing to stay indoors as an arctic blast swept across the Northern Plains, but the prospect of temperatures not cracking single digits had a different effect on the roustabouts, roughnecks and thousands of others working outside in western North Dakota's oil patch.

For them, it was just another challenge to face as they go about the task of pulling nearly a million barrels of oil a day out of the ground.

"This is what I love to do," said Craig Hovet, during a break from maintenance work on a well near Mandaree. "The joke around here is: This kind of weather keeps out the riffraff."

Hovet and his crew shrugged off blowing snow and single-digit temperatures on Wednesday, but the real deep freeze was just ahead. Thursday's projected high was minus 6 degrees, falling to minus 10 by Saturday, with overnight lows to 24 below as a major winter storm bulldozed from the Rockies eastward.

The National Weather Service forecast a foot or more of snow in some areas of the Upper Midwest, with freezing rain possible for parts of the Great Lakes. To the south, Oklahoma and Arkansas faced a possible ice storm Thursday evening.

Temperatures that had hovered in the single digits across Montana began dropping Wednesday evening, and the National Weather Service forecast record or near-record lows in several parts of the state overnight. The bitter cold predicted ranged from minus 9 degrees in Missoula to minus 27 in Butte and Shelby.

The extreme cold prompted the Red Cross to release a statement urging people to stay inside or layer up to guard against frostbite if they must go out. The agency also asked residents to check on their neighbours, especially if they require special assistance or live alone.

The cold snap was widespread, blamed on the jet stream's move southward and expected to linger through much of the week. In Minnesota, the icy blast came with a snow dump approaching 3 feet in the northeast, though much of that was lake-effect snow on the shores of Lake Superior. At least five people died in fatal crashes in Minnesota, plus at least two more in Montana and North Dakota. Oklahoma postponed high school football championship games as the storm moved in.

North Dakota historically has conjured up images of a bleak, wind-swept and treeless wasteland. The perception was so great that one group a decade ago proposed changing the state's name by dropping "North" and leaving just "Dakota," to dispel the state's image of inhospitable winter weather.

That was before North Dakota's recent oil bonanza that has brought swarms of people to the state in search of a good economy, a job and a fresh start. Now, thousands of new oil wells have been punched though the prairie, bringing billions of dollars to the state and more jobs than takers. It's a boom that doesn't stop for the weather.

"Harvesting oil is a 24/7, 365 operation," said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry group that represents hundreds of oil-related companies. "The pace probably slows during extreme blizzard conditions — and there are extra precautions on safety — but it's work that is not going to stop."

Longtime oilmen say clothing has improved over the years. And many rigs now have "doghouses" — small heated buildings — nearby and workers can go to them to get warm.

"You have to know when to give them breaks, and learn to watch them so they don't get too cold," said Larry Dokken, 67, of Williston.

Dokken has worked in the oil patch for nearly 50 years, with not-so-fond memories of working in minus-85 wind chill. He now operates a consulting firm that finds workers for oil companies, and prefers hiring cold-acclimated people from North Dakota or Montana — with at least five years of experience, too.

"If they've made it that long, they're probably going to stick around. A lot of people don't know what cold is," Dokken said.

"My history books in grade school said George Washington and his army suffered at Valley Forge, and I'm sure they did," said Daryl Andersen, a North Dakota native and 30-year oilman who now runs a well services company. "But we're colder here than they ever were."

North Dakota's notorious bitter cold isn't a deterrent for Dylan Grossman, a 23-year-old Alaska native who has posted a Craigslist ad seeking a labourer's job in the oil fields. Grossman is currently in Florida, where he's struggled to find work. He said he intends to move to North Dakota soon and has asked his mother to mail him his warmest clothes.

"I've heard it's cold and flat in North Dakota," Grossman said. "I think I can layer for it."

Hovet, who grew up in North Dakota, has heard that before. He recalls four Texans walking off a job site after being in North Dakota for just one day last winter.

"It was about 5 above and sunny and really kind of a pretty day," Hovet said. "They got their truck stuck in a ditch and their equipment got frozen up. They said, 'The heck with this, we're going back to Texas.'"

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