How to Fight a Hellfire


Hellfighters measured the temperature at the core of one of the 600 blazing oil wells during the first U.S. war against Iraq at 3,051 degrees, twice the heat needed to melt steel. Fifty feet away, the temperature on the ground was still a toasty 950 degrees, hot enough to sap most of the strength from steel. But according to veteran Asger “Boots” Hansen, oil-well firefighters save their own strength for the most dangerous moment: when the fire goes out.

The biggest threat is what those in the business call the “unexpected vapor cloud,” which can ignite at any time, even from blowing sand. “An oil fire’s an oil fire. Putting the fire out is not the big job,” Hansen, a former top lieutenant to Red Adair and the guy who led the hellfighting after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, told the Voice last week. “Capping the well is the job.”

In this Persian Gulf war, fewer than a dozen of the 500 oil wells in southern Iraq have been sabotaged, according to latest reports, and U.S. forces have moved quickly to secure the fields and equipment. Hellfighters are already planning their attack on burning wells.

The Bush administration took the first step by designating a division of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old firm, to coordinate hellfighting efforts. Halliburton has a longstanding formal alliance with Boots & Coots, the company Hansen and another ex-Adair lieutenant, “Coots” Matthews, founded decades ago in Houston and later sold. A spate of new fires could revive Boots & Coots, which had been teetering toward bankruptcy under its new owners.

So far, the war doesn’t look like a windfall for hellfighters, especially if the only burning oil wells are in southern Iraq, within easy reach of seawater. Saddam Hussein actually did hellfighters a favor during the first Gulf War. “He just blew up the wells,” Hansen said. “He didn’t mess with the machine shops and the quarters and all that. So we just moved in and took over the equipment, and we were in business.” But he noted that if Iraq’s northern oil fields start blazing, hellfighters may have more business than they can handle. The northern fields are inland, in a mountainous area where travel is difficult.

The Kuwait fires had a certain sameness to them, he added. While C-5 Galaxies airlifted custom-made 78,000-pound bulldozers and other equipment into existing airfields, the hellfighters surveyed the blazes by helicopter and jeep and figured out their first step. “We went tooling around and checked out the sites and found that the prevailing wind in that part of Kuwait was from the northwest,” he recalled. So when he came upon a blazing blowout, crews immediately dug out a pit on the northwest side of the site. They then took the flow lines normally used to pump oil from the wells to the gulf and simply reversed the process, pumping seawater into the million-gallon, plastic-lined lagoons. Hellfighters donned long johns, exchanged their regular plastic hardhats for aluminum ones that wouldn’t melt, and took their keys out of their pockets (to keep from having their legs branded as they approached the wells). Their only other protective gear, Hansen said, was a steady dousing of water.

To outsiders, the most spectacular oil-well fires are those shooting flame and smoke tens of thousands of feet straight up. To hellfighters, those are actually the tamest. Some of the sabotaged Kuwaiti wells were so heavily damaged that fire was spewing in all directions. According to an on-the-scene report from the Los Angeles Times, Hansen used a bulldozer-powered, 60-foot-long horizontal crane called the “Tush Hog” to lower a 30-inch-diameter pipe atop those blazes. This pipe becomes a venturi tube, into which air gets sucked inside from the bottom, forcing the fire to burn straight up through the pipe. Hellfighters then try to pump water or liquid nitrogen into the side of the vertical venturi tube in order to quell the flames. In other cases, they plant explosives—blowing up a well temporarily deprives the blaze of oxygen and puts out the fire.

Constantly drenched with water to help prevent reignition of fire, hellfighters attach new valves to cut off the flow. They may also try to stop the gushing oil by dropping a pipe into the well. If they can tie into a line that is below the leak, they can attempt “junk shots”—pumping in shredded rope, rubber parts and even golf balls to plug the gusher.

Boots Hansen is now 77 years old—”That don’t count the years I went barefoot,” he cracked—and he has residences on the Gulf Coast of Florida and in the Bahamas. He won’t be fighting any fires this war.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 25, 2003

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