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Dousing Kuwait’s Burning Wells: Keeping Cool Amid Hellish Oilfires

July 28, 1991

AHMADI, Kuwait (AP) _ In the blast-furnace atmosphere of Kuwait’s burning oil fields, the goal is not just to put out fires but to cap the wells securely so they can yield their precious fluid at maximum pressure in the future.

The firefighters use both brawn and brains - and a vocabulary that includes such arcane terms as ″coke shots,″ ″water curtains″ and ″kill mud.″

Since March, the American and Canadian firefighters have doused 248 of the wells set on fire by the Iraqis during their seven-month occupation of Kuwait.

More than 500 remain ablaze, burning up around $100 million worth of crude oil every 24 hours.

Freddy Gebhardt, 36, of Houston, who decided in high school he wanted to be an oil firefighter after seeing the exploits of Red Adair, told how he and his three-man crew from Wild Well Control Inc. of Houston extinguished well MG-115 last week.

DAY ONE: They moved in water pumps and a couple of ″athey wagons,″ tracked vehicles which carry 60-foot booms. They are used to place explosives or to rake debris away from damaged wellheads. The team also started smoothing truckloads of gravel around the burning well.

DAY TWO: They get their water cannons going and prepare for a ″coke shot″ - triggering an explosive device to break up the coke, or superheated charcoal-like oil debris around the wells.

″Then the sand started blowing, so we had to hold off,″ Gebhardt recalled. ″Too much static electricity.″

DAY THREE: The coke is broken up by an explosion of 150 pounds of dynamite, which had lowered by a boom. The pumps are going full blast, providing a ″water curtain″ to cool things down. By late afternoon, the crew is in its wagon, raking the debris away from their target.

DAY FOUR: Time to ″dig the cellar,″ a pit in the sand exposing the wellhead. The well is still blazing, and the crew doesn’t want to put it out until they’ve decided how to stop the oil flow, Gebhardt said.

In this particular well, the Iraqis did not succeed in blasting off the entire ″Christmas tree,″ the above-ground valve assembly that regulates the flow from the oil reservoir deep below the surface, so the flame is shooting horizontally from a damaged side valve. They divert the flame with a 30-foot tube and move in to take a closer look.

Gebhardt explained that the fire has superheated the ground - ″which can make things more difficult.″

They tip the tube to vertical, lower it over the damaged wellhead and let a process called ″the Venturi effect″ suck oil up the tube, followed by water from the surrounding pit.

The flame snuffs out, soon to be replaced by a new problem - gushing oil. A pre-dug ditch carries most of it away.

DAY FIVE: The crew rigs up its ″hydrojet cutter,″ a device that cuts steel without fire-causing sparks, using a mixture of abrasives and water. They cut 80 percent of the way around the wellhead, then knock it off with the athey wagon’s boom.

″The oil’s going straight up now,″ Gebhardt said. ″That’s just where we want it.″

The capping assembly - this one 12 inches in diameter - is swung by a crane over the gusher and lowered straight down, then bolted into place. A slurry of ″kill mud″ is pumped in a side valve to force the oozing oil back underground, and the cap is closed.

″We were covered in oil,″ Gebhardt said. ″All you could see was eyeballs and teeth.″

Last week’s well was the fifth they’d extinguished during their 28-day tour.

″We go home Monday,″ he said with a grin.

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