US Firms to Put Out Kuwait Fires

With hundreds of wells ablaze, job could take one to two years and cost $4 billion to $5 billion

`WELL killers'' will visit Kuwait this week to size up the job of snuffing out 571 oil wells set ablaze by Iraqi troops. Each day that the wells burn, an estimated 2 million barrels of Kuwaiti oil, worth perhaps $30 million, goes up in smoke. The Kuwait Petroleum Company (KPC) selected O'Brien, Goins, Simpson Inc. to coordinate the effort to stop the fires, control the wells, and restore oil production. T. B. O'Brien, president of the Midland, Texas, oilfield drilling engineering concern, says the work will last one to two years and cost $4 billion to $5 billion.

KPC hired Houston-based Red Adair Co. Inc., Boots and Coots Inc., and Joe Bowden's Wild Well Control Inc., along with Safety Boss of Calgary, Alberta, to do the actual firefighting. Meanwhile, KPC has contracted Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco to oversee rebuilding Kuwait's oil facilities.

Within three weeks, eight firefighting teams will be assembled in Kuwait, increasing later to 15. Each team will have two or three people, but they will be backed by up to 100 support personnel, Mr. O'Brien says. At any given moment more than 1,000 people will be involved. ``The coordination of all this is going to be a sizeable job,'' he says.

The survey team will advise the Kuwaitis which wells to tackle first, beginning with the easiest. The military will clear the mines around them ``so that we'll have room to work without stepping on something,'' O'Brien says.

Sam Bowden, a firefighter and equipment manager at Wild Well, his father's company, says two of his staff are trained to locate and clear mines, if need be. He calls the presence of mines ``a touchy situation.''

Judging from pictures, O'Brien says, some fires can be stopped merely by closing a valve. Some will need to have the wellhead replaced.

Others will require excavating around the well, O'Brien says. In the most extreme cases, when it is impossible to get near the inferno, firefighters will drill a slant well that intersects the burning one far underground. Material pumped down the new well will choke the flow of oil that feeds the blaze.

The easiest wells will take two days to extinguish, Mr. Bowden says. The most difficult will take a month.

Bowden says the teams will use ``Athey wagons,'' a treaded vehicle with a 60-foot boom, to reach into the fire and set explosives or remove debris. Blasting snuffs out the flames by depriving them of oxygen. ``Once we put the fire out it's still blowing oil,'' Bowden says. The next step is to slip a wellhead on top and weld it to the well casing. Bowden calls that ``a pretty tricky procedure. You just have to take your time.''

IT will be especially difficult on the most productive of Kuwait's wells, which flow 60,000 barrels per day with a pressure of 8,000 pounds per square inch. The wellhead has to be forced on. Other wells, he says, might be capped without even putting the fire out first.

Facing temperatures that reach 1,200 degrees F. at the wellhead, firefighters need a huge supply of water to cool things down. ``Sometimes you're actually spraying back onto your pump to keep it cool, or as a man's walking in, you've got to cover him with water,'' Bowden says. Wild Well uses pumps with a capacity of 5,000 gallons per minute.

The water will be pumped from the Persian Gulf to nearby well fires. It may be possible to pump water through oil pipelines into the deep desert. Otherwise, water will be obtained from wells drilled into a brackish aquifer 2,300 feet below ground, and stored in ``fire water pits,'' Bowden says.

Some of Kuwait's wells produce deadly hydrogen sulfide gas. ``Those wells will have to be kept burning until something can be done with them,'' O'Brien says. Once the fire on those wells is out, the firefighting teams will have to wear air tanks for the three to five hours it takes to cap the flow of oil and gas. ``That's most inconvenient,'' says O'Brien, ``but it's obviously better than dying.''

Reignition of a well is the biggest danger, Bowden says. ``It's a lot safer when it's on fire than when it's not,'' he adds.

Bowden says the teams will live ``in the desert'' in portable housing that will be brought in.

``Everybody here is just on a monthly payment,'' he says. ``We won't get any extra pay for going over there. This is our job.''

``The main thing is,'' he adds,``we just want to help Kuwait out, and the United States. Get this oil back into production.''

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