WASHINGTON -- It could take oil-fire fighters more than a year to extinguish and recap all the 200 oil wells now ablaze in Kuwait, according to one of the world's top oil-fire specialists.
Meanwhile, the gigantic black cloud of toxic smoke billowing from the uncontrolled fires continues to drift over the Persian Gulf, inflicting environmental damage that experts say could be more serious and extensive than the pollution from the estimated 85 million gallons of crude oil released earlier into the gulf.
"There has never been anything approaching the scale of this," said Raymond Henry, executive vice president of Houston-based Red Adair Co. Inc., probably the most famous of a handful of "wild-well control" companies.
"We're looking at over a year at best [to complete the job], I would say, just by the sheer number of fires," he said.
The biggest job he could recall was in the mid-1960s, he said, when an Adair crew spent several weeks putting out five wells in Libya.
He said the Kuwaiti government contracted the Adair group and at least three other wild-well specialists -- two in Houston and one in Canada -- shortly after Iraq invaded the emirate last August, apparently anticipating the torching of the wells.
Mr. Henry said he would be flying to the gulf soon, probably Monday, to assess the extent of the operation. He expected each company would employ at least two teams to kill the fires -- a dangerous and time-consuming job that involves literally blowing out the flames with explosives.
Hazardous chemicals from the fires, meanwhile, could poison crops and imperil communities within hundreds of miles, including those in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, environmentalists said.
"The effects will be around for a long while, incorporated into food chains and water supplies, not to mention in the air," said Peter Montague, who is monitoring the environmental impact of the gulf war for the Greenpeace organization.
"The oil field fires pose just as serious a threat to the people of the Middle East as a Scud missile," said Daniel Weiss, air pollution expert for the Sierra Club.
Kuwait has around 950 oil wells, said Richard Golob, editor of a U.S. oil pollution newsletter. Pentagon officials have said about 200 of the well heads are burning, and another 100 have either burned out or been destroyed.
Iraq has blamed the fires on allied bombing. But Pentagon officers say Iraq started them, either out of spite or in an attempt to hamper allied air operations over Kuwait -- a tactic that appears to have had limited success.
Black banks of smoke containing sulfur, benzene, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons are reported rolling across parts of Iran, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Benzene and other organic chemicals released by petroleum combustion can cause permanent lung damage, even cancer if breathed for long periods, noted Mr. Weiss. Hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides can combine to form smog, while sulfur mixes with moisture in the atmosphere to produce acid rain, he added.
Brent Blackwelder, vice president for policy for Friends of the Earth, said that aside from harming crops and people's health, the oil fires amounted to "a massive experiment in global climate change."
Some environmentalists, he said, believed the sooty, oily cloud could carry far enough to delay and reduce the Asian spring monsoons, limiting harvests for millions of people.
Mr. Henry, of the Adair company, said it would take "two to three weeks before anything is even attempted" to douse the flames in Kuwait. Iraqi land mines would have to be cleared and construction crews would have to lay a 30-inch pipeline to carry water from the sea to cool the burning well heads, which could be hot enough to melt the surrounding sand into glass.
Enormous volumes of cold water are necessary, he said, to drench the burning well heads and keep the explosives from becoming so hot that they exploded before they can be placed at the mouth of the well.
Mr. Henry declined to guess how much the operation would cost. "It will be expensive, but it won't be catastrophic," he said, adding jokingly: "I just hope [the Kuwaitis] don't run out of money."