North Dakota oil rush fuels new chances for Utahns

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 5:25 p.m. MST

Fil and Jill Askerlund sit in their Santaquin home on Thusday, Jan. 2, 2014. The Askerlunds spend most of their time in North Dakota because of the oil boom that rescued them from the recession.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

KILLDEER, N.D. — The Bakken oil boom of North Dakota is keeping homes, families and dreams alive in Utah.

"This has been great for Utah boys," said Jill Askerlund, her eye-catching smile lighting up her face as she gestures across a rolling landscape of hills.

Jill Askerlund is a "Southern California gal," a self-proclaimed "girly girl" who loves her high heels and hates dirt.

So when her husband, Fil, told her he'd landed a job in North Dakota — where there's no housing to be had because of the oil boom and the winters are Siberian cold — he didn't expect her to come. But not only did she join her husband in North Dakota, she jumped at the opportunity.

"There are a select few women who would do that — walk away from a big, beautiful home and live in a fifth wheel," he said.

Follow the money

The Askerlunds are among the thousands of people from Utah and across the country who have found that the oil being pumped from the largest oil field in the world is also pumping new chances into their lives — with opportunities that may well be unrivaled in their lifetime

An oil rush that began in 2001 has transformed western North Dakota, turning the state into the nation's No. 1 economy and helping to fuel a near 40 percent increase in U.S. oil production in the past two years.

Truckers are hauling in six-figure salaries. McDonalds and Wal-Mart offer $500, hiring bonuses and oil companies are renting entire floors of hotels to house their employees.

"Until you see the growth for yourself, you can't understand it," Fil Askerlund said. "It is unfathomable. … I never had the opportunity to live through the Alaskan gold rush, but this is obviously what it is to me. The area is just so impacted by oil development."

A new home

The Askerlunds live in one of the hundreds of "man camps" that have sprung up with the Bakken oil boom because of the shortage of housing.

In their fifth wheel that Fil Askerlund towed to Killdeer, Jill still struggles to conquer the logistical challenges posed by what she calls her "Easy Bake" microwave and "Easy Bake" stovetop.

Her first Christmas in Killdeer, she did some holiday baking for new friends. It took her four days. This year, she retired her apron early.

At their home in Santaquin, the master bathroom is larger than the fifth wheel.

Finding room for their scant possessions is difficult, akin to playing chess or some other board game where the pieces have to be strategically moved.

"Everything has a place, and every place has a thing," she quipped with a smile.

Jill Askerlund spends six weeks with Fil and then flies home to Utah to spend a month, continuing in her job as a surgical first assist, working across from a Utah County doctor in the operating room.

She had friends in Utah who were aghast at what she was "giving up" to join her husband in North Dakota. What about her seven grown children? What about her 17 grandchildren?

"I'm not married to my grandchildren," she counters.

This will be his third winter there and her second winter of bundling up in layer after layer of clothing, of driving nowhere without a winter survival kit.

"The key to our success is that we decided this is an adventure," she said.

It was also a matter of economic survival.

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