Firefighters Face Staggering Task In Kuwaiti Fields
Officials say that 213 oil fires have been doused, but that 500 continue to rage
AL AHMADI, KUWAIT — 'THIS," says Joe Carpenter, who comes from Houston, "is the Superbowl of firefighting."Oilfires rage on the horizon all around him, spewing clouds of black smoke into the sky. A well burns uncontrollably, sending up billows of scorching flame just 100 feet away. A coat of tar blankets everything and everyone in the vicinity - in short, the Kuwaiti desert resembles Hades. It's been this way for months, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. By mid-July, the four North American companies putting out the fires had extinguished 213, leaving about another 500 to tackle, according to the state-owned Kuwait Oil Company (KOC). "But people have to understand that we've done the easy ones," warns Boots Hansen, co-owner of Boots & Coots Inc., one of the firefighting firms. Mr. Hansen, one of the world's most experienced oil-fire fighters, says he is staggered by the size of his job. During 37 years in the business, he had never before seen more than five fires burning at one time. His current task, he says, is complicated by the weather - temperatures in the desert routinely rise to 130 degrees Fahrenheit - and because the Iraqi explosives damaged wells in a variety of ways. "You don't know which way the fire is going, you don't know what to expect," he explains. After taking 32 days to extinguish one particularly difficult fire, Carpenter and his two Boots & Coots colleagues, supported by a team of five roughnecks (workers who assist the firefighters) turned in mid-July to well No. 74 in the Ahmadi field, using their standard approach. The area around the wellhead had been scoured for mines and other unexploded ordnance. A pit dug in the sand was filled with a half million gallons of sea-water. A bulldozer driver, protected from the flames inside a makeshift corrugated iron cab, then scraped up the groundfire that had spread with leaking oil onto the desert floor, and piled 16 truckloads of sand into a wall around the flaming well. Setting up a three-sided corrugated iron shed about 30 feet from the wellhead, the firefighters installed a giant hydrant nozzle in a roughly cut window, and ran a pipeline from the water pit. Turning the hose onto the "Christmas tree" of valves and outlets at the wellhead, they tried to cool things off sufficiently to get a clear glimpse into the boiling flames at the source of the fire. Their goal was to drain away the lake of fiery oil that surrounded the wellhead and break off the thick cake of tarry coke accumulating on the valves, which was splitting the flames into uncontrollable billows. They wanted to pare the wellhead down to a single jet of flame burning straight up. That, they said, could then be doused with sufficiently large jets of water, or blown up with dynamite. Then the plan was to let the well gush oil for a day or so until the surrounding area had cooled, use a crane to lower a funnel into the wellhead itself, and pump in a load of heavy mud. The mud, heavier than the crude, would force the oil back down the 14,000-foot shaft, stabilizing the well for capping. That was the plan, anyway. Four days after starting work the well was still aflame. The firefighters had tried to knock the coke off the wellhead by using an ungainly boom attached to a trailer connected to the back of the bulldozer. The boom jerked backward and forward, jabbing at the coke in the flame-hidden wellhead. They had also attached a crude rake to the boom, and tried clumsily to tear the valves off the wellhead, succeeding only in bending them over. They had then dug a ditch to drain off surplus oil, but the fire jumped the earth barrier they had built and it all caught fire again. "This is a real hit-and-miss situation," says a roughneck. Hansen admits there is little science to the traditional method of putting out oil-well fires. "We don't do a whole lot more than we did 37 years ago," he says. "It's all routine. What's to change as far as technology goes?" (See story below.) "All in all," he adds, "things are going along fine." The Kuwaiti government, though, is anxious to speed up the rate at which the fires are extinguished. Chinese and Iranian firefighting companies are arriving in coming weeks, and firms from Britain, Australia, Argentina, the United States, Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union have offered their services, according to KOC Drilling Chief Aisa Boyabes. Although Kuwaiti Oil Minister Hamoud al-Raqba says he expects most of the fires to be out by next March, the firefighters themselves and KOC employees in the field are less sanguine about mentioning dates. "Nobody can tell because you are dealing with so many unknowns," Mr. Boyabes says. Literally going up in smoke every day are an estimated 5 million barrels of oil - worth about $100 million. So far, Kuwait is producing about 75,000 barrels of oil a day, according to Boyabes, just a fraction of the 1.6 million barrels per day the country was pumping a year ago, but enough to meet its electricity needs for the time being. "We were almost put back to square one," the KOC official says, gesturing at the blackened desert sands, and the lakes of crude oil that reflect the flames of the burning wells. "Things will never get back to normal here."