Preparing to battle infernos

Blaze: The men ready to put out searing 3,000-degree oil well fires say they do it for the rush.

March 17, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Wanted: Workers to hose down 150-foot flames in combat zones while covered in crude oil. Must have experience using explosives in 3,000-degree infernos that collapse steel oil rigs, cook sand into glass and melt boots and hard hats.

The roughnecks who could answer such ads are keeping their bags packed. Defense officials say they'll be needed overseas if war breaks out and Saddam Hussein sets fire to Iraq's 1,500 oil wells, as he did in Kuwait in 1991.

"We're fixin' to be going over" said Ronnie Roles, president of operations at Cudd Pressure Control, which extinguished some of the 732 blazing wells in Kuwait.

Although Hussein has denied that he'll torch the country's oil fields, the Defense Department announced this month that Iraq had received 24 boxcars of pentolite explosives that could be detonated around the wells.

The Pentagon says it has consulted with contractors on its plan to fight oil well fires, and Michael Miller, whose Canadian firm put out dozens in Kuwait, said he has exchanged e-mail with military planners.

Why would anyone take on such a job?

"It is hot, dirty and dangerous work, and it's got to be in your blood, you've got to want to do it," said Michael Fields, an Oklahoman with Kuwait experience. "But we do it, because for most of us, it's an adrenaline rush."

The work attracts a folksy, rough-and-tumble breed with an "aw shucks" attitude toward danger and a brand of machismo that's peculiar to the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma.

That image was seared into the national consciousness by Red Adair, a legendary figure who was the subject of the 1968 film The Hellfighters, starring John Wayne. Adair, now 87, rose to international fame in 1962 when he was credited with putting out an Algerian oil fire so large that astronaut John Glenn saw it burning from space and said it could light "the devil's cigarette."

Adair and fellow oil well firefighters have different techniques. Some use explosives, some don't. But they all rely on removing at least one of the three elements fire needs to survive: heat, fuel and oxygen.

The first step is robbing the fire of its heat, which is "like nothing you've ever seen," according to Bill Mahler of Houston-based Wild Well Control Inc.

While a room in a burning house can reach 600 degrees at eye level, a burning oil well can hit 3,000 degrees. That's why firefighters wear steel hard hats - the heat will melt regular plastic.

Most firefighters attack a burning well first by spraying it with cannon-like hoses. The water cools down the area, allowing crews to remove smoldering debris with a specially designed horizontal crane.

"Ninety percent of all of those fires in Kuwait were put out with nothing but sea water, sprayed from powerful hoses at the base of the fire," said Larry H. Flak, a petroleum engineer for Boots and Coots International Well Control.

In Kuwait, crews used an average of 1.2 million gallons of water a day, most of it piped from the Persian Gulf, said Robert D. Grace, president of a Texas-based company that worked the Kuwait fields.

Typically, firefighters direct water from the protection of a small, three-sided reflective tin shed, which itself is sprayed constantly to keep it cool.

But often, water isn't enough. When firefighters need a closer look, they don retardant coveralls, shield themselves with corrugated sheets of tin, and creep as close as they can.

"Sometimes you have to see exactly where the fire's burning on the well head and what's damaged, so you can decide the best way to put it out," said Fields, who is a district manager at Cudd.

Crews can cap wells that are still burning by using cranes to lower huge steel valves onto well heads, which extinguish the flames long enough for firemen to secure the valves.

Sometimes they fire jets of water laced with tiny pieces of garnet at damaged well heads. They strike with enough force to cut through the damaged metal, making it easier to replace from a distance with cranes.

For particularly stubborn fires, crews turn to the tool of last resort: dynamite or plastic explosives, such as C-4.

They pack explosives in a 55-gallon drum surrounded by fire retardant chemicals, wrap the drums in insulated material and use the same horizontal crane to bring the drum as close to the well head as possible. The explosion, detonated remotely, robs the fire of oxygen as the chemicals saturate the site, helping to put the flames out.

Now, the really dangerous work begins - wading through hellish fields of simmering oil to replace damaged well heads before they burst back into flames. "You just really have to be careful," said Mahler, whose has capped numerous wells in a 20-year career.

Firefighters in Kuwait were paid $800 to $5,000 a day, depending on their experience. But they earned it.

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