Well fires have been around almost as long as wells. Whether started by an act of nature, accidently during drilling, or deliberately (like the well fires in Kuwait that were started by Saddam Hussein’s forces during the Persian Gulf War), well fires have two things in common – they are dangerous, and the wells contain a fuel source to feed them.
Because of the amount of fuel available, a well fire can burn for months, and generate temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees. In the early 1960s, one natural gas well fire called the “Devil’s Cigarette Lighter” burned out of control in the Algerian Sahara Desert sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. Fed by 550 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter burned for six months before it was eventually extinguished, according to Sean Flynn, author of “The Big Heat.”
Fighting well fires requires the right techniques, as well as the right equipment. But most of all, fighting fires requires the right people.
The Early Days of Well Fire Fighting
One of the first documented examples of well control was in 1913. California-born Myron M. Kinley and his father had a blowout on a well they had been working on. Kinley and his father were already experienced in using explosives in wells to fracture the rock and increase the flow of oil, so they decided to use explosives in an attempt to create a shockwave that would blow the flames away from the fuel source. The technique worked, and in the early 1920s, Kinley began the first oil well fire-fighting company, the M. M. Kinley Company, according to Ed Dinger, author of “International Directory of Company Histories.”
Over a period of time, the company came up with basic fundamentals for handling well blowouts. In addition to using explosives to blow the flame away from the fuel source, the company also sprayed water on the drilling rig. When a fire was extinguished, the workers quickly capped the well before it reignited, communicating through hand signals to prevent possible sparks from tooth fillings, according to Dinger.
Because of the presence of a large fuel source, well fires remained difficult to control. However, explosives remained the primary method used in fighting well fires for many years. Over the next three decades, Kinley developed equipment and techniques for fighting fires that are still in use today.
Well Fire Fighting Comes of Age … and Hits the Big Screen
Better known as “Red” for the color of his hair, Paul N. Adair got his start as a well control worker with Otis Pressure Control Company. When a gas well blew out one December day in 1940, sending other workers racing away, Adair remained at the well to assess the situation. He noticed that a flange on a blowout preventer was loose, allowing gas to escape. Adair carefully tightened the large nuts on the flange which shut off the flow of gas, according to the International Directory of Company Histories.
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