Putting out the fires of Kuwait on TBS

TELEVISION

September 28, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

The biblical tone may be a bit hyperbolic (especially as underlined by Peter Gabriel's ominous score from the film "The Last Temptation of Christ"). But film footage from Kuwait featured in a cable documentary series this weekend perhaps justifies a metaphor evoking the fires of hell.

"They say it's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here," intones the narrator of "Fires of War," one segment of tomorrow's "National Geographic Explorer," at 9 p.m. on TBS.

"It was almost like these futuristic 'Mad Max' movies we've been seeing," observes Clayton Berry, a drawling Texas firefighter.

Mr. Berry is one of several hundred American oil field experts, many from Texas, who have been engaged to quell more than 730 well fires ignited at the end of the Persian Gulf war, apparently by order of Saddam Hussein.

"One war was over and another was about to begin," notes the narration.

And this battle will take years, with just 160 or so blazes having been "killed" so far, according to the show. Meanwhile, the billowing fires have hung a curtain of oily, potentially hazardous smoke over an area equal to the distance between New York and Florida.

At times, daytime seems dark as night, eerily lighted by gushing orange flares that can create on-the-ground temperatures of up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

The work itself is severely hazardous, "like cleaning a machine gun while it's firing," says another one of the specialists upon whom filmmaker Michael McKinnon focused his cameras.

Military ordinance experts must first sweep areas for unexploded shells, many of them bombs from American planes which buried themselves in the sand instead of exploding.

Bulldozer drivers use their vehicles to muscle hunks of glowing, solidified petroleum -- called "coke" -- into pits where molten oil bubbles like lava. A miscalculation might cause a fatal slide, and drivers also worry that their deep caterpillar treads might uncover land mines.

Further, the health risks of breathing the fouled air may not be known for years, causing one worker to comment, "you can't have rats put out fires, so human testing is what we're doing."

*

LADIES NIGHT OUT -- To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a laugh is a laugh is a laugh . . . and it often is best when it's gender free.

That's the reaction, at any rate, to "Women of the Night III," a new edition of HBO's annual presentation of up-and-coming female comics (at 9 tonight on the premium service). The best of this lot are the ones who break free to just talk about life, not necessarily life as a woman.

Kathleen Madigan, for instance, says she took a bus out to San Francisco. Upon boarding, she looked at her fellow passengers "and I felt like calling 'Unsolved Mysteries' and saying, Yeah, I found everybody.' "

And Susie Loucks talks about quitting smoking, snapping her wrist with a rubber band when the nicotine urge strikes. But soon, the rubber band is absurdly around her face as she demonstrates the orthodontic appliance she wore as a teen-ager.

"I looked like a hay baler," she says with a booming laugh.

These two are clearly the funniest, surpassing even host Sandra Bernhard, whose act appears to consist solely of wearing a succession of ridiculous outfits. Diane Nichols, Carol Henry and Laura Kightlinger do routines that seem too heavy with relationship humor and both male and female deprecation.

GOODBYE DR. SEUSS -- In commemoration of the death this week of Theodor Seuss "Ted" Geisel, known to generations of children and parents as whimsical author/artist Dr. Seuss, the TNT cable network is telecasting this weekend a 1989 production of one of his best-known recent works.

"The Butter Battle Book," a parable about international disputes in which the Yooks and Zooks battle over how to butter their bread, can be seen at 6 p.m. tomorrow. Actor Charles Durning is the narrator of the production, seen in 1989 on the TNT service.

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