Fresh from a fishing trip in northern Texas, where he reeled in more than 100 sand bass in a couple of days, Joseph Carpenter returned to his Houston office last week and prepared to fly back to a region that many visitors describe as hell on earth—the blazing oilfields of Kuwait. The 54-year-old Carpenter is a firefighter with
Boots and Coots Inc., one of four North American companies hired by the Kuwaiti government to extinguish oil-well fires started by the Iraqi troops who invaded Kuwait last August. As they retreated before U.S.-led forces early in March, the Iraqis set the oil wells alight. Since they began operations in Kuwait in late March, the four firms, including Calgary-based Safety Boss Ltd., have capped 175 of the more than 600 wells estimated to be burning out of control. Despite their progress, the firefighters say that there is no way to predict when the process will be complete. Declared Safety Boss spokesman Brian McCutcheon: “It’s a disaster that staggers the imagination, even of guys who’ve worked on spectacular fires.”
A blanket of smoke from the fires has darkened the skies above the desert nation and spread over thousands of square miles of land and water in the Persian Gulf region. A team of 27 scientists that conducted aerial surveys on behalf of the Washington-based National Science Foundation from May 16 to June 12 reported last week that the smoke blanket is
vast enough to stretch from New York City to the tip of Florida. As well, large sections of the Kuwaiti desert have been coated in oil, some of it in pools of up to 10 feet in depth and covering areas the size of small lakes. Despite the scale of the catastrophe, the team concluded that the smoke would not have any effect on global climatic conditions—a claim that was disputed by some environmentalists. Still, the report did say that the smoke has already lowered temperatures in the Gulf by blocking sunlight.
For their part, officials of the firefighting companies said that they are facing a difficult job on the ground. McCutcheon said that Safety Boss crews are fighting the fires mainly with the help of potassium bicarbonate, a dry chemical compound that resembles baking soda. It
works by reacting with oxygen and robbing the fire of the oxygen needed to keep it burning. Safety Boss crews in Kuwait use fire trucks similar to those used by municipal fire departments to pump the chemical onto blazing oil wells at a rate of 200 lb. per second.
The three Houston-based companies, Boots and Coots, Red Adair Co. Inc. and Wild Well Control Inc., use a different approach. Carpenter said that they dig reservoirs near the wells capable of holding up to a million gallons of water, which is pumped in from the Persian Gulf. He added that the American teams then hit a fire with four streams of water simultaneously and can usually extinguish a blaze in half an hour.
Whichever method is used, firefighters have to work close to blazes that give off furious heat. Some of the wells have 250-foot-high geysers of flame roaring over them, and temperatures at the wellhead sometimes reach
650° C, Carpenter said. To fight the infernos, workmen often have to get within 150 feet of the wells. Carpenter said that they stay behind corrugated-tin shelters, but even there the temperatures reach 120°.
When water fails, the U.S. firefighters resort to dynamite, which is more expensive and dangerous to use. Carpenter said that Boots and Coots packs about 200 lb. of dynamite into a 55-gallon barrel that is wrapped in an insulating material and soaked with water. They then attach a 75-foot metal boom to a bulldozer and dangle the barrel from the end of the boom before detonating the dynamite. He added that the resulting explosion usually snuffs out the fire by consuming all the surrounding oxygen.
When the fire is out, the difficult task of
capping the well begins. McCutcheon said that Safety Boss uses nine-member crews, which include a supervisor, a heavy-equipment specialist, a paramedic, four blowout-control specialists and two other workers who are responsible, among other things, for monitoring the amount of poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas that is contained in the oil. The blowout specialists occasionally have to wade through the dangerous chemical mix three to five feet deep to reach the wells. McCutcheon said that the most time-consuming part of the operation is the removal of wellheads that have been twisted by Iraqi explosives. After the debris has been cleared, the blowout specialists can install a new wellhead that contains valves for cutting off the flow of oil. The firefighters wear hard hats, goggles, earplugs and two sets of clothing, but usually finish every day soaked to the skin in oil.
Although the four companies combined have been capping an average of three wells a day, some of the firefighters say that they may encounter more seriously damaged wells that will be more difficult to control. McCutcheon said that Kuwait’s most productive wells were capable of pumping up to 60,000 barrels of oil a day, compared with a top Canadian well that yields about 1,000 barrels daily. Said McCutcheon: “You’ve got oil flowing out of a pipe at 800 miles an hour. That’s a powerful stream of oil.”
While the firefighters struggle with the blazing wells, smoke from the fires has accumulated in the skies over Kuwait and broadened into a swath more than 100 miles wide as it is carried south by the prevailing winds. Peter Hobbs, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Washington in Seattle and co-leader of the National Science Foundation team that visited the Gulf, said that the smoke has sullied the skies as far away as the United Arab Emirates, 500 km south of Kuwait. The foundation scientists gathered data during 35 flights aboard aircraft at altitudes of as much as 22,000 feet. According to Hobbs, from that height scientists could see the oil and soot from the fires blackening the deserts of Kuwait.
The American scientists also concluded that the fires were unlikely to disrupt the global climate because the smoke is being absorbed by clouds and will fall back as rain. Lawrence Radke, coleader of the National Science Foundation team, said that the smoke would have to re-
main in the atmosphere for several months and migrate up to the stratosphere, which begins at about 35,000 feet, in order to disrupt the global climate by blocking some of the energy from the sun.
Despite the team’s findings, some environmentalists who have visited Kuwait say that they are still convinced that a major catastrophe is occurring. Adam Trombly, a British physicist and climatologist who visited the Gulf region in June, said that residents of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 320 km south of Kuwait, blame the smoke for nausea, headaches and shortness of breath. According to Trombly, if one per cent of the smoke reached the upper levels of the atmosphere, it could cause a 2° C drop in the world’s average temperatures for at least two years, depending on how long it takes to extinguish all the fires. Clearly, Kuwait’s desert inferno . will remain a source of global u concern for months, and per2 haps years, to come.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.