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Oil Well Fires a Challenge to Experts : Kuwait: Snuffing out blazes is no easy task, and they could burn indefinitely, veteran firefighters say. Sandy terrain could be an ally.

January 23, 1991|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you could drill a hole straight to hell and allow some of it to erupt to the surface, you'd have a pretty close approximation of an oil well fire, veteran firefighters say.

"It's very noisy. You have a loud roaring sound," said Martin Kelly, a firefighter with Boots & Coots Inc., a Houston firm that fights well fires all over the world. "It's very dirty and nasty."

If oil wells in Kuwait have been set ablaze, as feared, they could burn as long as oil surges to the surface and no one is around to put the fires out, oil fire specialists said Tuesday.

Even if teams were dispatched to the wells tomorrow--hardly likely as long as war continues in the Persian Gulf--snuffing the fires could take days to several months, depending on the availability of fire-fighting equipment, trained personnel and the severity of the fire, firefighters said.

Still, "they can all be capped if you can get to them," Kelly said.

The Kuwaiti government-in-exile has discussed bringing in U.S. firms to cap fires after the war. If the Iraqis set the wells on fire, it seems obvious they would not want to put the fires out.

An oil well burns much like a Bunsen burner, said Raymond Henry, a 25-year veteran firefighter who works for Texas trouble-shooter Paul (Red) Adair. Oil from a reservoir wicks up through the well and burns when it hits the air, sending a flame towering into the sky.

Both Adair and Boots & Coots extinguish such fires either with a strong jet of water or with a blast from an explosive strategically placed at the base of the flame. The blast robs the fire of oxygen for an instant. "It's like blowing out a match," Henry said.

Things are different if the fires are burning in oil storage tanks or in ditches. If the oil is relatively confined, fire crews need only spray a layer of gel or foam on the surface of the oil pool to smother the fire.

Otherwise, "the best thing do with those is to let them burn themselves out," Henry said.

As of Tuesday, it was unclear what was causing fires in an oil field in the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"All we know at this point is that fires are confirmed in the Wafra field," said David Dickson, a spokesman for Texaco Inc., which has a half-interest in the field, as does the Kuwait Petroleum Corp. "We don't know the sources--wells, pipelines or storage tanks."

Oil storage tanks were also reportedly burning at a pair of installations, Shuaiba and Mina Abdullah, about 60 miles north of the border.

Should oil wells be on fire, the severity of the blaze would depend on the nature of the wells, experts said.

If oil is flowing under high pressure from an underground reservoir, a fire could burn until pressure from the reservoir is depleted--something that could take months or a year.

But if oil is flowing at relatively low pressure, the fire could burn less robustly. Indeed, if oil is being pumped out of a reservoir, a fire might snuff itself out if the pumps are disabled.

Dickson said he believes the Wafra field holds a low-pressure reservoir of oil. "The vast majority of (the wells) have to be pumped," he said.

Fire experts added that if the geologic structures of the oil reservoir are based on sand--not rock--then it would be more likely that debris could come up with the oil and possibly plug up the wells, extinguishing a fire.

Dickson said he believes the Kuwaiti oil fields are, in fact, sandy structures.

If the fire continues to burn, however, there's little to stop it until crews can move into the area.

Joe Bowden, president of Wild Well Control Inc., a firefighting firm in Houston, said his firm took six days to put out a well fire in Kuwait about six years ago. "Some take two days, some take three months," he said. "You never can tell."

Wild Well Control, Boots & Coots and Red Adair's company have all talked with Kuwaiti authorities about capping burning oil wells there once the war is over, firefighters said.

As long as the war continues, though, it seems unlikely that firefighters will be called in. That could make it harder to deal with the fires later.

"If it erodes (the wellhead) as it is burning, it becomes harder to put it out," Kelly said.

Similarly, the longer an oil storage tank burns, the greater likelihood that the fire will spread.

"Even if a storage tank were initially intact, the intense heat of a fire could cause a tank wall to rupture, resulting in a large spill of oil into a containment area," said Richard Golob, publisher of Golob's Oil Pollution Bulletin in Massachusetts. A wave of such oil that spilled over containment berms could spread the fire to other storage tanks, he added.

Once crews are in place, extinguishing a fire is fairly straightforward, although hazardous. Massive machines clear debris from the wellhead, allowing the flame to burn unobstructed. Huge jets of water are turned on the flame to cool the well and to attempt to douse the fire.

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