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Oil-Well Fire at Sespe Field Extinguished After 6 Days

September 15, 1988|WILLIAM DIEPENBROCK | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County firefighters Wednesday morning extinguished an oil-well fire that burned six days, critically injuring one man and causing about $5 million in damage.

With the help of Texas-based specialists in battling oil-field blazes, 12 firefighters doused the blaze at the Sespe Oil Field north of Fillmore in about four minutes, according to fire officials.

"It went just the way we had it planned," said Battalion Chief Dan Spykerman. "It went out and never flashed back."

Later Wednesday, the Houston-based Boots & Coots, one of the oil industry's celebrated emergency teams, worked to cap the well and prevent the escape of fumes that had fueled the fire for nearly a week.

Spykerman said the fire, which was contained late last week, could have been put out at any time, but firefighters had to wait until the Texas team acquired the parts and equipment necessary to cap the well. Otherwise, a cloud of gas fumes shooting up from the earth would have posed an explosive hazard to workers and the surrounding Los Padres National Forest.

The fire started shortly after 1 p.m. Sept. 8 when an electric fan apparently malfunctioned and emitted a spark. The spark ignited vapors from two 33,600-gallon storage tanks and the fire spread to the Powell No. 1 well.

The subsequent burst of flames enveloped California Production Services employee John Henry, 24, who suffered second-degree burns over 60% of his body. A Ventura resident, Henry underwent surgery Tuesday and is scheduled to do so again Friday. He is listed in stable condition at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital.

The blaze destroyed a portable drilling rig being used to prepare the well for production and other equipment valued at about $5 million by well operator Seneca Resources Corp.

It also caused a fleeting scare among U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who last month placed three Andean condor chicks in a refuge about two miles from the fire. The chicks are part of an effort to re-populate the area with the nearly extinct California condor.

County firefighters kept a 24-hour watch on the fire, trucking in water to bolster limited local supplies. A "water curtain" was used to keep puddles of burning oil away from 11 other storage tankers nearby.

Initial Effort Fails

An initial effort to quench the fire was made Sunday, but a ruptured pipe sapped the pressure behind a jet of salt water aimed at the well. The salt water's heavy weight might have stamped out the flames, said Dick Perry, county Fire Department spokesman.

Officials also abandoned measures planned Monday and Tuesday that would have temporarily killed the fire while experts inspected damage to the well. The fire would then have been reignited to consume the escaping fumes while workers waited for the delivery of key parts to cap the well.

However, high winds on both days could have blown the highly flammable vapor cloud over firefighters, so the plan was scrapped, Perry said.

Oil-well fires are considered uncommon, said Bill Guerard, technical services manager for the state Department of Conservation's Division of Oil and Gas. "Forty to 50 years ago, they were much more common, like you see in the movies," he said. "Equipment is much better today."

Inquiry Planned

The fan thought to have started the Sespe fire was intended to dissipate fumes from diesel engines that help sift drilling mud used as a lubricator in the well, said Pat Kinnear, a spokesman at the Ventura office of the Division of Oil and Gas. Kinnear's office will participate in a routine inquiry after the cleanup to ascertain the exact cause of the fire.

Seneca Resources, a Houston-based subsidiary of National Fuel Gas Co., considers the damage and cleanup costs "very minimal," Vice President Murdock Baker said. "The fire is actually very minor, although it looks like it's not. When you burn a little bit of oil, it looks like it's a whole lot."

Baker said his company, which has more than 100 wells in the Sespe field, may lose as much as $5 million due to the fire, but added that such numbers are "extremely preliminary."

The last major California oil-well fire occurred five years ago at the Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve in Kern County. That blaze cost about $1 million for cleanup, lost product and equipment, reserve counsel Ron Dixon estimated. About $225,000 was paid to oil fire expert Red Adair, with whom Coots Matthews and Boots Hansen of Boots & Coots were once partners.

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