How Do You Extinguish an Oil-Well Fire?

British military sources report that up to 30 oil wells are burning in southern Iraq, near the city of Basra. Once an oil well catches fire, how do you put it out?

No two well fires are alike, so procedures vary depending on the type of oil, the volume of the flow, the local availability of water, and any number of factors. But according to Mark Badick of Safety Boss Inc., one of the companies that extinguished the infernos set by Iraqi troops during the first Gulf War, there are four basic steps to controlling a well fire.

1. Clear debris from the well. Firefighters need access to the flames, so they spray a curtain of water at the blaze, and then send in heavy machinery to cut away any obstructions. Removing a fence might take half an hour; removing a burning well head, the metal structure that houses the series of valves used to control the flow of oil, might require days. When Saddam ordered his men to burn to Kuwaiti oil wells, they set explosive charges on the well heads, which destroyed the machinery and ignited the oil released from underneath it. The explosions also left shards of metal at the mouth of the well, which can redirect oil flow in dangerous directions.

2.Get the flow of oil to rise straight up into the air. Ideally, once the obstructions are removed, the oil will shoot straight up like a geyser. That gives firefighters access to the flames from all angles; it also prevents oil from pooling on the ground near the well head, which might allow the blaze to spread along the ground.

3. Put out the fire and cool the surrounding area. Firefighters attack flames with 3,000-pound extinguishers that spray dry potassium bicarbonate powder (known as Purple K) at a rate of 200 pounds a second. Then, using steady streams of water in conjunction with the dry chemical extinguishers, they put out the flames. If oil has pooled on the ground, firefighters may spray it with foam that breaks the oil down at the molecular level. Once the fire is out, firefighters spray the surrounding area with water, carefully avoiding the still-flowing oil geyser; they don’t want to knock the oil down to hot spots on the ground and reignite the blaze.

4. Cap the well. Once the surrounding area is cool, firefighters cap the well to shut off the flow.

There are a handful of businesses that specialize in controlling well fires, and they’ll probably be called in to combat any blazes in Iraq. Safety Boss Inc., one of those companies, has been inundated with job applications in recent weeks, but they’re not hiring.

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Explainer thanks Robert Ebel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Mark Badick of Safety Boss Inc.